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Ohio Senate Race Attracts Highest Outside Spending Yet

Outside groups have spent $5.8 million in Ohio this year — more than double what was spent six years ago, and the most spending from outside groups in any congressional race so far in 2016.

April 8, 2016

As the first quarter of 2016 comes to a close, the battle for control of the U.S. Senate is already under­way. Candid­ates will have to file quarterly reports of their campaigns’ finances over the next two weeks. But we already have data on outside spend­ing (that is, expendit­ures by anyone other than candid­ates and parties), since it must be repor­ted every few days. While it’s still early in the elec­tion, the trends we predicted are already start­ing to appear. The money is coming from groups fueled by dona­tions that are dozens or hundreds of times higher than federal candid­ate contri­bu­tion limits, even when the group is dedic­ated solely to elect­ing a single candid­ate. And many of the sources of the spend­ing are hidden from the public.

In a harbinger of what is likely to be one of the nation’s most expens­ive Senate races, outside groups have spent $5.8 million in Ohio this year — more than double what was spent six years ago, and the most spend­ing from outside groups in any congres­sional race so far in 2016. Fresh­man Sen. Rob Port­man (R) is defend­ing his seat, and former Gov. Ted Strick­land recently won the Demo­cratic primary race, defeat­ing Cincin­nati City Coun­cil Member P.G. Sitten­feld. The contest is widely considered to be one of the most compet­it­ive in the nation, as the parties struggle for control of the Senate.

The last time this seat was up for grabs was the year the Citizens United era began and super PACs were born. In 2010, Port­man ran against Strick­land’s lieu­ten­ant governor, Lee Fisher, for the open seat. For that entire year, nonparty outside spend­ing totaled just $2.6 million — less than half what groups have already spent just through the end of March this year.

The great major­ity of the 2016 spend­ing has come from conser­vat­ive groups attack­ing Strick­land, who has long been the presumptive Demo­cratic nominee. The two biggest spend­ers so far are both part of the polit­ical network spear­headed by the billion­aire indus­tri­al­ist Koch broth­ers: a super PAC called Free­dom Part­ners Action Fund and the nonprofit Amer­ic­ans for Prosper­ity. The two groups have spent a combined $3.4 million hammer­ing Strick­land.

Spend­ing by dark money groups which hide the iden­tit­ies of their donors is a signi­fic­ant factor in Ohio, account­ing for 36 percent of outside spend­ing. This has been driven by Amer­ic­ans for Prosper­ity, one of the highest-spend­ing secret-money groups in the 2012 elec­tion, and by the U.S. Cham­ber of Commerce, which has been at or near the top of the list of highest-spend­ing dark-money groups in every elec­tion since 2008.

But these repor­ted spend­ing totals are incom­plete, because not all types of elec­tion spend­ing are required to be repor­ted to the FEC. In Ohio, the Amer­ican Chem­istry Coun­cil, an industry trade group, has run ads support­ing Port­man. No one knows how much they have spent or who their donors are.

Single-candid­ate groups are also active in the state. Donors can give these “buddy groups” checks of any size, all to be spent on their favored candid­ate, provid­ing a conveni­ent way around the strict limits on the size of direct contri­bu­tions to candid­ates. In Ohio, both Port­man and Sitten­feld have benefited from buddy groups’ activ­it­ies, whose spend­ing in the state comprises around 14 percent of outside expendit­ures.

The group boost­ing Port­man, Fight­ing for Ohio Fund, was foun­ded by Barry Bennett, who worked for Port­man’s campaigns in the past. Fight­ing for Ohio has attrac­ted several six-figure donors, includ­ing major GOP donors from the finan­cial industry and an Ohio dark-money group called Free­dom Vote, Inc.

Sitten­feld’s long-shot campaign was suppor­ted by six-figure spend­ing from a buddy group called New Lead­er­ship for Ohio. That super PAC’s major sources of funds include $100,000 from Sitten­feld’s father and $325,000 from the family of Sitten­feld’s campaign manager.

These six-figure dona­tions are dwarfed by what’s possible in the pluto­crat-domin­ated world of outside spend­ing, however. For example, the biggest spender in Ohio, the conser­vat­ive Free­dom Part­ners Action Fund, took in $3 million from just one donor: Charles Koch. The pro-Demo­crat Senate Major­ity PAC, which has attacked Port­man, has multiple $1 million donors. As Elec­tion Day comes closer, this race is only likely to attract more and more mega-donors.

The Bren­nan Center will continue to monitor elec­tion spend­ing in Ohio and other compet­it­ive races this year. The trends we’re already seeing indic­ate further deteri­or­a­tion in two pillars of our campaign finance system, contri­bu­tion limits and disclos­ure. As the sources of elec­tion spend­ing become increas­ingly concen­trated and hidden, the case for reform grows all the more compel­ling.

(Photo: Think­stock)