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Contest for the Senate in charts: Outspent Dems lean on super PAC donors in homestretch

In the final weeks of the 2014 campaign, Democrats are increasingly reliant on super PACs and their deep-pocketed donors to underwrite their effort to maintain their Senate majority. Republicans meanwhile, have money left in the party bank and a clear advantage when it comes to dark money — funds that can’t be traced to donors. These are just some of the insights we gained by visualizing data on key Senate races in a series of charts. The information comes from the Federal Election Commission via our Real-Time Federal Campaign Finance tool, which makes the up-to-the-minute campaign finance data available for easy analysis.

MORE: Confused about all the different kinds of election spending? Sunlight Editorial Director Bill Allison explains it all.

Another striking trend revealed this exercise: For all intense speculation about the fate of Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell in Kentucky, the unexpectedly strong threat to longtime Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kansas, or the seemingly tightening contest for Georgia’s open Senate seat, most of the big money guns in the closing weeks of the campaign have been trained on three races: North Carolina, Colorado and Iowa. Those are the three lines jumping towards the top of our first chart, which shows week-by-week spending by outside groups in competitive Senate races. Hover over each line to see the race it represents and spending details.

During the past week, spending actually dropped off slightly in Kansas, where independent Greg Orman has made national headlines with his surprising show of strength against GOP veteran Roberts, and in New Hampshire, where Sen. Jeanne Shaheen is facing a challenge from Scott Brown, the former Republican senator from Massachusetts.

In the three races attracting the most outside money, a handful of powerful outside groups are driving the bulk of the spending, with party committees leading the way. While the Republican Crossroads combine, the liberal Senate Majority PAC, environmental crusader Tom Steyer’s NextGen Action Committee and the generally pro-Republican U.S. Chamber of Commerce are some of the premier forces in the races that will define these midterm elections, in the “big three” Senate races, it has been the parties leading the late charge in spending. The heavy investments in Colorado, Iowa and North Carolina from the national parties’ senatorial arms are a good indication of where the smart money is moving — and other outside players are paying attention.

Since Oct. 12 — the first week we started to notice some major separation between spending on these pivotal states and the rest of the competitive Senate races — the National Republican Senatorial Committee has led the outside spending pack with $4 million investments for Cory Gardner in Colorado and Joni Ernst in North Carolina and a $5 million outlay in the Tarheel State.

The DSCC is also diverting serious resources to those battleground states but its latest report to the FEC indicates the committee is borrowing money to do so..

Looking at outside spending for the most competitive Senate races, we’ve sliced and diced the data to gain insights into where the money is coming from and which givers each party is leaning on hardest. For the charts below, we’ve looked at spending both on a cumulative basis and week by week. The latter view often highlights difference in strategy — or fiscal exigencies. Here are four takeaways, drawn from a series of embeddable charts on campaign spending now available from our Real-Time Federal Campaign Finance tracker.:

1. Democrats caught up with GOP Senate outside spending in September, but Republicans now lead in total money spent.

The difference in spending is much starker when seen week by week (see below).

Republican groups outspent their Democratic counterparts by roughly $10 million for the weeks ending Oct. 19 and Oct. 26.

2. The difference isn’t just dollars, it’s who’s doing the spending — and when.

Most outside spending comes from three areas: Party committees, super PACs — which do register with the FEC and report donors — and dark money groups, which do not report their donors. Democrats have led in terms of super PAC spending overall (see below).

The week-by-week view of super PAC spending shows a sharp drop off by Republican groups late in the campaign.

When it comes to independent expenditures made by party committees, the opposite trend is visible. During the course of this election cycle, Democratic party committees have spent more on the Senate.

But the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee borrowed $15 million in the final two weeks of October; as of Oct. 15 the PAC owed more than $15 million and had less than $8 million in the bank. The National Republican Senatorial Committee has spent less in independent expenditures, but by Oct. 15 had about $10 million dollars in the bank with no debt.

And while weekly spending numbers are volatile, the chart suggests that DSCC’s spending seems to have slowed. That’s a reversal from September and early October, when it outspent its GOP counterpart.

3. Republican groups have dominated Senate dark money spending

For much of September and October, GOP groups–typically political nonprofits–have been outspending Democratic groups by at least $5 million a week.

4. The Democrats are keeping up in outside spending thanks to one man

With their Senate committee $7 million in debt, and dark money consistently lead by their opponents, Democrats have relied on super PACs to get their message out. After months of campaigning, few super PACs have much left to spend. The one exception? NextGen Climate Action Committee the group funded almost entirely by hedge fund billionaire Tom Steyer. The three blue peaks in the chart below largely represent infusions of his cash. Steyer has given upwards of $71 million in the last two years, leaving the group with more than $16 million to spend on Oct. 15, the most of any super PAC filing a report for that period.


Dark money still a Republican game

Graphic credit: the Sunlight Foundation

Massive checks from billionaires like Tom Steyer, Michael Bloomberg and James Simons have fueled a Democratic outside spending machine that has helped to keep vulnerable candidates in contention across the country. Third-party spending on behalf of Democrats has kept pace with conservative dollars by and large, but Republicans still dominate at least one facet of the outside money equation: A Sunlight analysis of dark money — from politically active groups that don’t disclose their donors — finds that the practice still has a decidedly Republican bent.

Longstanding organizations like the National Rifle Association and newcomers like the Kentucky Opportunity Coalition have opened their coffers to intervene in elections; sometimes in contests across the country, sometimes in a single race. Overall, Republican-leaning dark money groups have spent $94.6 million, while Democratic-leaning groups have spent $28.4 million. Some $1.9 million in expenditures could not be classified.

The most prolific of the spenders, by our tally, is the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. A trade association and perennial heavyweight on K Street and the campaign trail, almost all of the Chamber’s $31 million in reported spending has supported Republicans or opposed Democrats.

Just behind the Chamber is Crossroads GPS, which has poured in $23 million to softening vulnerable Democratic candidates, $8.6 million of which has been poured into the nail-biter Colorado Senate race. Crossroads GPS is part of the network of organizations that Republican insiders Karl Rove and Ed Gillespie, currently the Republican nominee for Senate in Virginia, founded in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in 2010.

While Crossroads GPS has an affiliated super PAC that discloses its donors (American Crossroads), the nonprofit arm has fought to keep its donor list quiet. It won an important victory in December of last year when FEC commissioners deadlocked on a decision to investigate the group’s political activity.

As the Center for Public Integrity and others have noted, Democrats are not bystanders in the dark money game. The League of Conservation Voters reported some $9.5 million in independent expenditures this year — good for the highest total of any liberal group — while the union-backed Patriot Majority USA has spent around $8.5 million.

Regardless of which side of the aisle it comes from, the stream of anonymous money is generally flowing toward a handful of tight Senate elections — particularly Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Iowa and North Carolina.

Nonprofit dark money operations generally are 501(c)4 social welfare organizations or 501(c)6 trade associations. Internal Revenue Service rules bar social welfare organizations from being organized primarily to influence electoral politics, though they may still legally spend millions of dollars directly advocating for or against federal candidates in the form of independent expenditures.

When they spend money advocating for or against a federal candidate, these organizations must file a disclosure with the FEC, with some summary information including the type of expenditure (often TV ads), how much was spent and which candidate is targeted. Unfortunately, we know these reports cover only a fraction of the total sum these groups are pumping in to elections.

As Sunlight has reported in the past, politically active nonprofits frequently run “issue advertisements” that skirt the FEC’s definition of express advocacy and go unreported to the FEC.

This covert spending comes to light in the days immediately preceding an election, however, which is partly why we see the large jump in September, as non-filers switch over to directly advocating for candidates — since they will have to report their spending regardless.

The Sunlight Foundation advocates for the DISCLOSE Act which would provide greater transparency of the donors behind nonprofits’ political money.


Political ad watch: 48 new commercials in one day

It’s not your imagination: Three weeks before election day, the political air wars are heating up. Here at the Sunlight Foundation, where we track ad spots by politically active committees for our AdHawk mobile app, we counted 48 new ones on Tuesday alone.

By far the majority are attack ads by outside groups; their placement gives a good hint about where the political “smart money” sees the nation’s most truly competitive races in the homestretch of campaign 2014. Some of the highlights.

Statewide races

In South Dakota, where a four-way Senate race merited front-page coverage in Tuesday’s New York Times, there’s an effort underway to shore up beleaguered Republican frontrunner Mike Rounds, the state’s former governor. The American Chemistry Council, whose extensive political efforts we’ve catalogued in this space, has produced a pro-Rounds ad. And while Rounds refuses to run negative ads, that’s not stopping the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which has produced a spot attacking his two top opponents, Democrat Rick Weiland and former Sen. Larry Pressler, a Republican-turned-independent.

In Kansas, another state where a multi-candidate race is making Republicans nervous, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is attacking independent Greg Orman as a closet Democrat, citing, among other things his refusal to endorse the Keystone XL pipeline or speak out against the President Barack Obama’s health care law.

The National Rifle Association is wading into gubernatorial races, posting ads calling for the defeat of Democrat Maggie Hassan in New Hampshire and the reelection of Republican Gov. Nathan Deal in Georgia. That’s on top of an ad the NRA posted on Monday attacking Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, D, who is running for a second term.

Keeping up the negative drumbeat, the National Republican Senatorial Committee released ads Tuesday attacking two of the nation’s most vulnerable Democratic senators, Mark Pryor of Arkansas and Mark Udall of Colorado, as well as Rep. Bruce Braley, an Iowa Democrat vying to succeed retiring Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa.

Political heavyweight American Crossroads adapted the much-commented upon spelling bee ad it used against Pryor in Arkansas to target Jeanne Shaheen in New Hampsire on top of a new message targeting Sen. Mark Begich, D, in Alaska. Meanwhile, dark money partner Crossroads GPS goes after Sen. Mary Landrieu, D, in Louisiana.

AFSCME, the public employees’ union, fired back with new negative ads slamming Republican Senate candidates in Colorado, Iowa and North Carolina.

House Races

In Maine, the Tea Party-aligned FreedomWorks unveiled a spot touting Bruce Poliquin a Republican running in the state’s 2nd Congressional District, and another painting his Democratic opponent, Emily Cain, as a far-left Obama devotee.

The Democratic House Majority PAC, meanwhile, issued ads attacking Republican congressional candidates in California’s 7th Congressional District, New York’s 18th Congressional District.

American Action Network and its affiliated super PAC, the Congressional Leadership Fund, answered back with ads attacking Democrats in California 7th one of that state’s most competitive contests and Rep. Ron Barber, D, in Arizona’s Second District, a swathe of land on the Mexican border that Stuart Rothenburg calls a pure toss-up.

The Congressional Leadership Fund, the AAN’s super PAC, unleashed new spots in a trio of House races: Opposing congressional hopeful John Foust in Va., and incumbent Reps. Scott Peters in California and Brad Schneider in Illinois.

On a positive note

That’s not to say it’s been entirely attack and burn in the political ad world. The pro-gay rights GOP group American Unity PAC is running positive spots on behalf of GOP congressmen Chris Gibson in NY-19 and Frank LoBiondo in NJ-02. Meanwhile the United Mine Workers PAC just released a pro-Allison Lundergan Grimes ad in Kentucky, where coal is always near the top of the agenda and the House Majority PAC, headed by a former DCCC operative, has just put out a glowing review of Rep. Kyrsten Synema, D-Ariz., and her “eagerness to work across the aisle to promote Arizona issues.”


Outside interests pour $37 million into N.C. Senate race

Chart of Senate races, ranked by outside spending totals, as of Oct. 7, 2014

When you use Sunlight’s Real-Time Federal Campaign Finance tracker to rank Senate races by outside spending, North Carolina’s race comes out on top. Click on the image to go the full site.

North Carolina’s Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan and her Republican challenger, state House Speaker Thom Tillis, are preparing for a Tuesday night debate in a contest that’s shaping up as one of the most red hot in the nation: An analysis of Federal Elections Commission data by Sunlight’s Real-Time Federal Campaign Finance tracker shows that the Tar Heel state contest is attracting more outside cash than any other Senate race.

Of the $37.5 million that outside groups have dumped into North Carolina so far, $25.4 million has gone for negative advertising. More than $6.5 million has gone for ads opposing Hagan and a jaw-dropping $18.8 million for ads opposing Tillis.

Among the 35 outside organizations that Sunlight has identified as active in the North Carolina race, the biggest spender by far is the Senate Majority PAC, a super PAC directed by former staffers for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. It has so far pumped more than which so far has put more than $10 million dollars in the race, more than twice as much as the official Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Outside spending in North Carolina’s Senate race

Note: For simplicity’s sake, we’ve counted contributions against one candidate in the Hagan-Tillis as supporting the other, except for a few groups that backed Greg Brannon over Tillis in the GOP primary.

Tillis’ most generous outside supporters include the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the National Rifle Association and Crossroads fundraising combine — a super PAC and political nonprofit founded by former President George W. Bush’s political strategist, Karl Rove.

One of the Crossroads groups, Crossroads GPS, is a dark money group, a term Sunlight has coined to identify nonprofit organizations that don’t register with the Federal Election Commission and don’t disclose donors but raise and spend money to try to influence elections.

The existence of such organizations means that the $37.5 million we have identified in North Carolina represents only a part of the outside spending there.

The campaign-style activities undertaken by dark money groups never have to be reported to the Federal Election Commission as long as they take place more than 60 days before the general election and don’t directly ask for a vote for or against a candidate. There is a paper trail, however, for broadcast television ads. Using Sunlight’s tools for tracking political ad buys, Political Ad Sleuth, we have identified a number of buys during the spring and summer by outside groups that directly targeted one or the other of the candidates. Most of the ads that we have found running outside the reporting window from dark money groups appear to have targeted Hagan.

For instance, the 60 Plus Association purchased airtime in several North Carolina markets to air an anti-Hagan ad. Note that it does not recommend a vote for or against Hagan — words that would have required the expenditure to be reported to the FEC.

One of the most active outside spending groups in North Carolina during the spring and summer: Americans for Prosperity, a group funded by the conservative brothers Charles and David Koch, which appears to have stopped spending as soon as the 60 day pre-election reporting window opened. Two months before a general election, any ad that mentions or depicts a candidate for office must be reported to the FEC. Here’s a sample of the type of anti-Hagan ads AFP was airing during the summer:

One of the few pro-Hagan ads aired by a nonprofit, the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy buy, directly took on the Koch brothers for attacking her:

Totaling how much money these organizations spent during the summer is difficult because it would require hand-entry of hundreds of filings at the Federal Communications Commission. And even that would not necessarily completely capture dark money spending that went for activities other than TV ads.

One thing is clear, however: A lot of outside interest groups have a lot invested in who is going to win the Senate race in North Carolina.


Campaign Intelligence: It’s summertime . . . And the pols are trash-talking

It may be vacation season for most Americans, but not for those who are running for office in this year’s mid-term elections — or for those who want to influence the outcome of those races.

Sunlight’s Ad Hawk, a tool that helps voters identify the people and the interests behind the political advertisements bombarding their living rooms, has had a particularly full in-box this week, picking up new ads in several of this year’s key Senate races.

Crossroads GPS, part of the GOP political spending combine that told the Associated Press it plans to spend $20 million this fall in six key Senate races, has uploaded ads for two of them:

In Arkansas, where Sen. Mark Pryor is in a tight re-election battle, Crossroads has posted an ad emphasizing the two-term Democrat’s ties to President Barack Obama, who got just 37 percent of the vote in Arkansas the last time he was on the ballot.

Arkansas is one of the states where Crossroads appears to have been most active, according to ad buys compiled by Sunlight’s Political Ad Sleuth from records filed by the state’s TV stations with the Federal Communications Commission. You can see the Crossroads buys in Arkansas here.

In Colorado, home of another one of this year’s most vulnerable Democrats, Mark Udall, Crossroads is attacking the first term senator for being insufficiently supportive of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, which proponents see as a job-creator and opponents see as an environmental disaster.

Both ads deliver highly negative messages about the politicians they are targeting but because they never explicitly call for a vote against them and because they are airing well before the 60-day pre-election window when the Federal Elections Commission requires such messages to be reported, expenditures on the ads don’t have to be reported either. But enterprising watchdogs can crack open the contracts on Ad Sleuth and enter the numbers into a database that Sunlight has created. The Crossroads buys in Colorado are here.

On the other side of the environmental debate, the big-spending League of Conservation Voters has posted two new ads attacking Joni Ernst, the Republican candidate vying for an open Iowa Senate seat. Both portray Ernst as “too extreme” for the state, and one links her to GOP firebrand Sarah Palin and the conservative bankrollers Charles and David Koch.

The League of Conservation Voters’ ad buys in Iowa can be viewed here.

Airtime in Kentucky, where Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell’s reelection bid has set off a barnburner of a contest, has been a hot commodity since early 2013, Political Ad Sleuth records for the Louisville market show. Ad Hawk this week picked up two new ads in the race, one from McConnell’s Democratic opponent, Alison Lundergan Grimes, and another from the Kentucky Opportunity Coalition, a dark money group that’s backing McConnell.

Finally, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has posted an ad strongly backing Rep. Jack Kingston in the July 22 runoff for the GOP Senate nomination in Georgia. Kingston faces businessman David Perdue. Details on the Chamber’s ad buys in the Peach State are available here.


Dark money in North Carolina’s Hagan-Tillis Senate race: 4,086 ad spots at WBTV

Outside groups bought virtually all the ads that one Charlotte TV station has aired in North Carolina’s hotly contested Senate race, and nearly half of the dollars they spent haven’t been reported to the Federal Election Commission. That’s the conclus… [...]

Day after McCutcheon, FEC commissioners clash over dark money

A screenshot from a Crossroads GPS commercial against Obamacare
A screenshot from a 2013 ad by Crossroads GPS; Image credit: Youtube

The day after the Supreme Court threw aggregate contribution limits out of the window, commissioners from the nation’s campaign finance watchdog agency clashed over an enforcement matter from the 2010 elections. The issue at hand? The Federal Election Commission’s failure to investigate the political status of “dark money” republican nonprofit, Crossroads GPS.

Hours before the meeting, Vice Chair Ann Ravel — a Democrat who took an aggressive stance against dark money political contributions as head of California’s campaign finance enforcement agency — published an op-ed in the New York Times on Wednesday bluntly titled “How Not to Enforce Campaign Finance Laws. From the article:

“The Federal Election Commission is failing to enforce the nation’s campaign finance laws…The problem stems from three members who vote against pursuing investigations into potentially significant fund-raising and spending violations. In effect, cases are being swept under the rug by the very agency charged with investigating them.”

The op-ed quickly became Topic A of Thursday’s open meeting. As soon as the commissioners disposed of a routine agenda item, Republican Commissioner Caroline Hunter laid into Ravel.

“Should we investigate every 501(c)4 that makes [independent expenditures]?…you’re happy if someone is enforcing the law as you see it, not as it is written,” she declared, noting that the op-ed may confuse campaign finance lawyers about the Commission’s position.

Ravel refused to engage, saying she’d rather discuss her views with her colleagues in private.

On the columns of the New York Times, however, the rookie commissioner minced no words. She labeled the three Republican members of the FEC as the “commission’s anti-enforcement bloc” and accused them of having turned a blind eye to the overtly political nature of a 501(c)4 nonprofit group, Crossroads GPS. The group spent millions helping Republican candidates and causes in 2010 — and continued to do so in subsequent cycles. But unlike traditional political committees, Crossroads  — and many other groups modeled after it — are not required to disclose the sources of funding because they claim to be “social welfare nonprofits” for whom politics is not their primary purpose.

Four votes were needed to launch an official investigation into whether or not Crossroads broke campaign finance law but the Commissioners deadlocked on the vote. In their initial statement of reasons, Republican Commissioners concluded that “Crossroads GPS’s major purpose was not the nomination or election of a federal candidate,” but rather “issue advocacy and grassroots lobbying.”

As for the overall landscape of campaign finance in the post-McCutcheon world, the agency is still deliberating on the case’s impact. Commissioner Ellen Weintraub, a Democrat, expressed hope the decision would prompt the FEC to improve campaign disclosure. In an interview after she meeting, she told Sunlight that “the court has given us an opening to do more rule making and enhance transparency and disclosure in the system.”

Chief Justice John Roberts, in his opinion supporting overturning the aggregate limits, also emphasized the importance of real time disclosure of campaign contributions in “minimiz[ing] the potential for abuse” and noted that limits may have actually encouraged donors to give to dark money entities (like Crossroads). In the view of Sunlight, however, there remain substantial impediments to disclosure in spite of modern technology.


Group plans to sue FEC after dark money deadlock

A public interest group plans to file suit against the Federal Election Commission for failing to take action against Crossroads GPS, a conservative nonprofit group that the agency’s lawyers said should have registered as a political committee in 2010… [...]

FEC lawyers: Reason to believe Crossroads broke law

The Federal Election Commission’s professional legal staff believes that Crossroads GPS, an innovative fundraising operation that enabled veteran GOP operatives to end-around campaign finance regulations, likely violated election law, according to a l… [...]

IRS creates big stir targeting small fry

While the IRS fries the small fish, the big ones got away. Click here to see the big picture.

Updated: 3:55 p.m.

The scandal over the Internal Revenue Service’s targeting of conservative groups seeking nonprofit status has widened to a point where President Barack Obama took public notice today and a key House committee scheduled a hearing for Friday to examine the matter.

Obama’s denunciation of the tax agency’s “outrageous” behavior came following reports on an as-yet-unreleased inspector general’s investigation that found the abuses–requests for detailed records and information from tea partiers seeking IRS blessing to incorporate as social welfare organizations–started in 2011, a year earlier than the Service had previously acknowledged, and that higher ups were aware of the practice.

Sunlight’s view: IRS debacle highlights need for clearer regulations.

And other reports have surfaced alleging that a wider array of groups were singled out for the additional scrutiny.

As Sunlight noted on Friday, most of the groups drawing IRS scrutiny were small fish. Meanwhile, an array of better-funded political players, including the Crossroads GPS, co-founded by top Republican strategists, and Organizing for Action, which offered access to President Barack Obama for donors who gave or raised $500,000 or more, appear to have gotten a free pass.

So-called “social welfare” nonprofits of every ideological stripe pumped at least $300 million in funds whose donors will never be disclosed in the 2012 elections. To see who the big players were, check out Sunlight’s list on our Follow the Unlimited Money tracker.