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Ohio Congressional Races Illustrate 2024 Campaign Finance Trends

The primaries showcased big money from national groups, hidden sources, and candidate self-funding.

June 24, 2024
View the entire Money in the 2024 Election series

This year’s congressional elections in Ohio demonstrate several key trends in money in politics. Super PACs funded by out-of-state megadonors influenced primaries, outspending several candidates in competitive races. The biggest spenders drove an intraparty ideological showdown on the right, with big money funding both establishment Republicans and far-right candidates. Another notable trend was self-funding: candidates spent more than $15 million on their own campaigns. In fact, self-funding was the only reason super PACs didn’t outspend all the major candidates in the Senate primary. Finally, national spenders, many of whom are “dark money” groups that don’t reveal their donors, funneled millions through local-sounding groups to obscure where it was coming from.

Big money from outside Ohio

Perhaps the most notable trend in Ohio’s two marquee federal primaries was how much of the money spent originated from outside the state. Congressional candidates have always raised some money nationally. In recent decades, however, the portion of their funds coming from donors outside their districts or states has significantly increased — meaning that many elected officials feel increasing pressure to cater to a national donor base rather than their constituents. The ballooning influence of the nation’s largest megadonors through super PACs has supercharged this trend.

Two races in Ohio show how significant independent spending from national groups can be: the contests for Senate and the 9th House district. Both seats are held by Democratic incumbents, are considered tossups in the general election, and had competitive Republican primaries.

Ohio’s GOP Senate primary saw heavy spending from nationally funded independent groups — more than $20 million. The far-right Club for Growth spent $5.6 million through affiliates in favor of the winner, business owner Bernie Moreno. The main vehicle, Club for Growth Action, raised 86 percent of its overall contributions in this election cycle from donations of $1 million or more. The top sources include $20 million from investor Jeffrey Yass, a Pennsylvania resident and the biggest individual donor in the country this cycle. The second biggest donor was Illinois packing magnate Richard Uihlein.

The Club for Growth is the biggest-spending supporter of right-wing candidates nationwide, and Moreno suits its ideology. “President Trump says the election was stolen and he’s right,” Moreno said. He also won the support of the Senate Conservatives Fund, which has boosted right-wing Senate candidates Rep. Alex Mooney in West Virginia and Kari Lake in Arizona. Some commentators have suggested that right-wing populism is driven by small donors, but that was not the case for Moreno, who raised less than $600,000 from donors giving $200 or less.

Moreno’s chief competitor, State Sen. Matt Dolan, ran as an establishment Republican and attracted big spending from traditional GOP funders. The Buckeye Leadership Fund, a single-candidate super PAC that put up $7.7 million in support of Dolan, got more than half its money from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Ardleigh Impact Corporation, an obscure Delaware company that has funded several mainstream GOP groups, gave $1.3 million to pro-Dolan spenders.

The third-place finisher, Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose, has been viewed as a mainstream conservative but tacked right in his Senate bid. He attracted $5.4 million in independent support from a single-candidate super PAC called Leadership for Ohio Fund — more than triple what his campaign spent. The group is primarily funded by $3 million from Uihlein and another $1 million from a Uihlein-funded super PAC. Uihlein, who also backed groups supporting Moreno, is a major supporter of election denial and other conservative causes. He has allied with LaRose before: in 2023, Uihlein donated $4 million to a failed effort backed by LaRose to make it harder for voters to amend the state’s constitution, a campaign widely perceived as intended to stymie an abortion rights initiative. 

In the 9th district, where Democratic Rep. Marcy Kaptur is defending her seat, state lawmaker Derek Merrin won running as an establishment Republican. His campaign spent only $132,000, but he was buoyed by over $1 million from establishment GOP groups, including the Congressional Leadership Fund, the super PAC affiliated with House Republican leadership.

Self-funded campaigns

Across the two primaries, four candidates plowed more than $15 million into their own bids. Wealthy individuals are spending more and more of their own money to get themselves elected to Congress — almost 10 times more than 20 years ago. Dolan was the clear leader in this year’s Ohio contests, loaning his campaign $10.2 million — almost as much as the campaign spent. His parents helped as well, putting $2 million into the Buckeye Leadership Fund. Moreno loaned his own campaign $4.5 million. LaRose and Riedel each loaned their bids $250,000.

Obscured funding sources

Several groups funded from outside the state seemingly attempted to obscure that fact by using names that convey an Ohio connection. This can make the mandatory disclaimers in ads misleading since they display only the group’s name. Much of the funding came from dark money groups that hide their donors anyway.

In Dolan’s corner, the Buckeye Leadership Fund’s biggest donor is the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which does not make the identities of its donors public. And Defend Ohio Values derives none of its money from Ohio — it’s largely funded by two Delaware dark money groups, America Leads and Ardleigh Impact Corporation.

The pro-LaRose Leadership for Ohio Fund, headquartered in Virginia, is funded largely by Uihlein, an Illinois resident, as well as $1.5 million from a Washington, DC, dark money group called American Jobs and Growth Fund. Ohio Truth PAC, which attacked Merrin’s far-right opponent in the 9th district, shares a Houston, Texas address with its sole funder, the Eighteen Fifty-Four Fund, which keeps its donors secret.

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Millions more came into the state from groups that keep their donors secret without trying to look like they’re from Ohio. Democratic groups that do not disclose their ultimate funding sources have been active, including one that spent approximately $4 million on the Senate race, mostly on attack ads against Moreno.

This analysis used campaign finance data from Open Secrets.