In a special election last week, voters chose John Boehner’s successor to represent Ohio’s 8th District in the House. Unsurprisingly in this deep-red district, the Republican, businessman Warren Davidson, won handily. The GOP primary in March was the real contest in the district, and the spending fueling that contest illustrates the state of money in politics in the Citizens United era. Candidates were outspent by outside groups that take unlimited donations, potentially without publicly revealing where the money came from.
Ohio’s 8th district has the highest outside spending of any House district so far this election cycle, with groups other than the candidates and parties pouring $2.5 million into the contest—nearly all of it focused on the primary. The wide-open Republican field also saw vigorous spending by the campaigns themselves: four candidates spent more than a quarter-million dollars.
But the main outside group supporting Davidson spent twice as much as he has. The Club for Growth, an economically conservative super PAC allied with the Tea Party, paid $1.1 million for ads supporting Davidson and attacking his primary rivals. (The Club for Growth has also attacked Donald Trump and recently joined the successful conservative spending assault on North Carolina Rep. Renee Ellmers, who was the first GOP incumbent to lose a primary this year.)
Others in the 8th District primary secured support from outside spenders, as well. State Representative Tim Derickson was assisted by more than $700,000 in expenditures by a group called Right Way Initiative—well over twice as much as Derickson’s own campaign spent. Right Way Initiative is a single-candidate dark-money group: it was recently created, has only spent in favor of Derickson, and does not reveal its donors.
Also-ran Jim Spurlino had his own outside-spending ally. Spurlino, who owns an Ohio concrete business, was supported by a single-candidate super PAC called Americans for Concrete Solutions. The super PAC was primarily funded by a $200,000 contribution from Cemex Materials LLC, which is a Florida-based subsidiary of a Mexican building materials company. Although it is illegal for foreign nationals to spend in U.S. elections, domestic subsidiaries are allowed to make expenditures provided the activities are not funded by the foreign parent company.
As the primary season comes to a close and the general election heats up, we are likely to see more and more of these patterns of outside spending. Groups fueled by unlimited donations have the ability to dominate election spending. Some single-candidate groups may be so closely affiliated with their favored candidate that their donors are effectively evading contribution limits. Secretive groups can try to influence voters without revealing the source of their funds. The need for reform is clear, and the next president and Congress must fix the system.