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Early Senate Spending Foreshadows 2016 Trends

So far in 2016, spending in competitive Senate races exhibits troubling trends: dark money, super PACs, and a wealthy few fueling campaigns.

April 11, 2016

Last week, we examined how Ohio’s U.S. Senate race illustrates some of the key trends in American campaign finance: outside groups offer opportunities for big donors to give far in excess of candidate contribution limits, and many donations are hidden from public view. Today we widen the lens to reveal some early examples of these trends in other competitive Senate races.

The sources of much outside spending are concealed by the practice of funneling money through “dark money” organizations that aren’t required to disclose their donors. In Illinois, 85 percent of outside spending, or $1.2 million, is dark money – largely due to rival spending by the conservative U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the liberal And 100 percent of outside money in Nevada comes from unknown donors, as the Chamber’s $400,000 praising Rep. Joe Heck (R) is the only outside expenditure there so far.

If past cycles are any indication, the Chamber is likely to spend big in all the competitive contests. In 2014, it was the highest-spending dark-money group in federal elections, and its largest expenditures were on ads supporting Republican Senate candidates.

Organizations devoted to electing a single candidate, or “buddy groups,” offer deep-pocketed donors a way to support candidates far in excess of candidate contribution limits. A significant portion of outside spending in Pennsylvania’s Senate contest—38 percent—is coming from single-candidate groups. Former U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak (D) has benefitted from $500,000 worth of TV ads from a super PAC devoted to electing him to the Senate.

Former aides of the incumbent in the Pennsylvania race, Sen. Pat Toomey (R), have launched a super PAC, Prosperity for Pennsylvania, that’s expected to boost him. That group has raised $1.1 million, more than half of which came from six donors of $100,000 each. Prosperity for Pennsylvania, which is supposed to operate independently of Toomey’s campaign, also took $75,000 from the senator’s own leadership PAC. After some experts questioned the legality of those contributions, Toomey’s leadership PAC requested a refund.

Prosperity for Pennsylvania has yet to start spending. Other single-candidate groups are holding their fire, as well: in Florida’s Senate race, four candidates have buddy groups waiting in the wings, sitting on a combined $2.5 million.

It’s unclear how significant a factor single-candidate groups will be in the 2016 congressional election. Although they have become more common in in recent years, their rise has been slowed by party leaders’ push to consolidate outside spending efforts in groups they control. Last year, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) reportedly told Republican senators not to set up their own super PACs. He directed them to steer big donors to groups tied to him instead: a super PAC called the Senate Leadership Fund and a dark-money group called One Nation.

McConnell’s strategy mimics that of the leader of the Senate Democrats, Harry Reid (Nev.), who has reportedly directed donors to the Senate Majority PAC, which is run by his former aides. Senate Majority was the biggest nonparty outside spender in 2014’s most competitive Senate elections, and it’s on track to repeat this year. For example, the group’s ads attacking Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R.) account for almost half of the $3.3 million in outside expenditures made so far in New Hampshire.

Like virtually all super PACs, both parties’ affiliated super PACs depend almost entirely on very large donations. The pro-Republican Senate Leadership Fund’s biggest contribution so far is $2 million from Petrodome Energy, a Texas oil and gas producer. The super PAC has also collected $1 million checks from Chevron and several titans of the financial industry. Its Democratic counterpart, Senate Majority PAC, has a few $1 million donors from the energy and financial industries of its own, as well as six-figure contributions from several unions.

Of course, we can’t know how much dark-money groups affiliated with a single candidate or party, like One Nation, depend on large donations, since they don’t disclose their funders. In fact, we don’t even know how much they’re spending. One Nation has reportedly bought $2.4 million worth of ads supporting Sen. Ayotte in New Hampshire, making it the biggest outside spender in the race by far. It has also announced $1 million ad buys in Ohio and Pennsylvania. But because that type of expenditure isn’t required to be reported, One Nation’s spending doesn’t show up in FEC data.  

It’s still very early in the election, and some states expected to have close elections have not yet attracted much outside spending. But the troubling trends we observed in 2014 are already showing up this year: the money fueling campaigns increasingly comes from large expenditures by a wealthy few who have the option, often taken, of keeping their activity secret

(Photo: Thinkstock)