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Win or lose, big money still matters in politics

a plane dropping money on symbols of the Democratic and Republican party
One billionaire has spent more than $70 million on the 2014 elections; Image credit: DonkeyHotey/Flickr

A few scenes from the recent past: Hopeful polls that showed close races prove a mirage on Election Day; a billionaire spending $50 million of his own money to elect, among other things, senators who would push his issues; super PACs run by savvy political insiders with years of electoral experience spend millions buying ads to prop up weak candidates, many of whom go down to defeat. Election Day 2014? Yes. But Election Day 2012 as well.

Two years ago, after the titans of outside spending like American Crossroads, the American Future Fund and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce futilely spent tens of millions supporting slates of candidates that went down to defeat in 2012, Sunlight noted that, even in defeat, big money still mattered. And while big donors like Tom Steyer and the Democratic Party insiders running Democratic-leaning outside spending groups might not be celebrating over it this morning, big money — even losing big money — matters in Washington. Here are five reasons why:

1. Not all big bettors were losers

While Harry Reid’s now not-so-merry band of outside spenders, the Senate Majority PAC, might have spent 91 percent of their $32 million on losing races, other groups did decidedly better. For example, Crossroads GPS, the Karl Rove-connected dark money group, had a 96 percent return on investment, spending $26 million to elect Republicans. And in 2012, while most of the $92 million that Sheldon and Miriam Adelson contributed to super PACs was spent on losing candidates, congressional Republicans were happy to introduce a bill for the casino mogul that would have banned Internet gambling. Similarly, Tom Steyer will have no problem getting congressional Democrats to take his phone calls.

2. There are no permanent losers in politics

As we wrote, word for word, two years ago:

An incumbent president wins a second term by an overwhelming Electoral College majority over a Massachusetts politician who, despite being aided by hundreds of millions in spending by outside groups, loses the election in a handful of hotly-contested battleground states. The president proclaims his victory as a mandate … to privatize Social Security. That was 2004, when President George W. Bush prevailed over Democratic candidate John Kerry and dozens of outside groups like the Media Fund, Moveon.org and Americans Coming Together.

In February 2005, the Center for Public Integrity reported that some of the biggest spenders in the 2004 campaign — both conservative and liberal — were gearing up to do battle over Bush’s proposals to change Social Security. The same donors who saw John Kerry go down to defeat in Ohio, and Republicans pick up Senate and House seats in the bargain, came out on top in 2005 when Bush’s Social Security proposals went down in flames. Super PACs and political nonprofits are already making the switch from backing and attacking politicians to backing and attacking policies.

Similarly, candidates backed by the National Rifle Association had a poor showing in the 2012 election. A few months later, the NRA went back to spending, trying to stymie Senate action on gun control measures in the wake of the Sandy Hook mass shooting at Newtown, Conn. Even though President Barack Obama pushed gun control, even though the measure proposed dealt with background checks and not bans on types of guns or magazines, the measure went down to defeat.

3. There are permanent insiders in politics

Most of the big outside spending groups active in 2014 — Senate Majority PAC, House Majority PAC, Crossroads GPS and the Congressional Leadership Fund, to name a few — are run by former party, campaign, congressional or executive branch insiders. While not all of them are household names, they have names known to members of Congress, and can put a big donor in touch with a lawmaker with ease.

4. 2016 anyone?

The race to replace Obama, which will feature two contested primaries, is well underway. Leadership PACs and super PACs associated with the potential presidential candidates made investments backing 2014 candidates (nothing like an endorsement in Iowa or New Hampshire), and they’ve also beens spending small fortunes on strategy and research, list building and fundraising. In addition to building their own campaign war chests, presidential candidates — some of whom may be sitting senators, House members and governors — will need their own super PACs and the big money behind them to compete in Iowa, New Hampshire and beyond. The individuals and organizations who wrote six and seven figure checks to super PACs will continue to be courted by the political insiders who run super PACs and the politicians who rely on them.

Plus, the Senate map in 2016 is far more favorable to Democrats than Republicans. Those deep pocketed donors who had a rough night after the polls closed last Tuesday have a good chance to be celebrating.

5. 2018 anyone?

It’s early, but just as the 2016 map favors Democratic Senate hopefuls, the 2018 map may work well for Republicans.

Big donors will have reason to keep their checkbooks close at hand, and the politicians counting on them will have reason to give them access.


ROI 2014’s Comeback Kids: Crossroads, Chamber

After a 2012 election that left big Republican money reeling, the biggest players on the right have a lot to celebrate the day after the midterms. The returns on their political investment this year are eye-popping. Results for the Democrats: Not so much.

The chart below shows the top 20 highest spending outside groups in the midterms and their success rate so far.

Two years ago, when we took the post-mortem of the presidential-year elections, powerhouse conservative spenders like Crossroads GPS, American Crossroads and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce had almost nothing to show for the tens of millions of dollars they funneled into that campaign. In 2014 conservatives turned the ship around, drubbing their liberal rivals in a year in which independent groups on both sides dropped an unprecedented amount of money.

The three conservative organizations mentioned above all had success rates under 20 percent two years ago. This year? Each group batted .800 or above. With several races remaining to be decided, the National Republican Senatorial Committee boasts a 94 percent success rate.

No matter what it’s ideological leaning, outside money is definitely not bullish on politicians. In the chart below, the size of the circle represents the size of the expenditure, and by far the most money went to negative advertising. Hover over each circle to get more information on the spender.

The nature of midterm elections had a big impact on the ratings. In 2012 most of the independent spending was concentrated on one race, the White House, so Obama’s reelection meant that millions in conservative dollars had been spent in vain. This cycle the action has been spread out, but the results are nearly equally lopsided.

For new mega donors on the Democratic side, the results are a rude awakening.

Tom Steyer, who spent more than $70 million of his own money launching his own super PAC, has little to show for his efforts. Steyer’s NextGen Climate Action, an environmental messaging machine that opposed Republicans in close races across the country, lost major battles against Cory Gardner in Colorado and Joni Ernst in Iowa, both now senators-elect.

The results were equally grim for all groups that followed the Democratic battle plan: Senate Majority PAC, founded by former staffers to Sen. Harry Reid and fueled by a core of liberal donors including Steyer, Fred Eychaner and Michael Bloomberg acted like the DSCC’s right arm in its strategy — and got walloped as a result.

Of course, there are some anomalies in this narrative. Not all conservative groups had a banner year.The Ending Spending Action Fund put most of its efforts in to the two Senate races that Democrats managed to save, in New Hampshire and Michigan. And while the National Rifle Association scored extremely well, the pro-gun control Independence USA super PAC, largely funded by Bloomberg, posted an ROI fit for the Wall Street billionaire: 100 percent. The group focused the bulk of its general election spending — $3.8 million — helping to reelect Robert Dold, an Illinois Republican, to the House seat he lost two years ago. The PAC also made smaller expenditures to help reelect Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., and Rep. Michael Fitzpatrick, R-Pa., both of whom faced far less competitive races.

Likewise, some groups that eschewed a party line ended up doing quite well. The National Association of Realtors, which is unsurprisingly focused on mortgage and insurance legislation, supported candidates on opposite ends of the political spectrum, from Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell to Democratic Sen.-elect Gary Peters. Nearly all of the Realtors’ candidates won.

Another trade association, the American Chemistry Council, has been active backing incumbents on both sides of the aisle this year, but in the closing days of the campaign focused its money largely on media for Republicans in four hotly contested races: Joni Ernst in Iowa, Mike Rounds in South Dakota, Pat Roberts in Kansas and David Perdue in Georgia. The results gave the Chemistry Council a 100 percent success rate for its $1.7 million investment.

When examining these results there are a few important caveats to consider:

Spending on primary races was not included in this analysis.

Additionally, we can only report what we see. These figures only capture the outside money that is disclosed to the Federal Election Commission, so-called independent expenditures that expressly support or oppose a federal candidate.

For this analysis we categorized “successful” spending as money either spent supporting a winning candidate or opposing a losing candidate in the general election.

These percentages only cover races that have a conclusive winner. So, money spent on races that go to runoffs, or are still too close to call, are not factored into our return on investment study. We will update it as results come in.

At this point three Senate races remain to be decided: Alaska, Louisiana and Virginia. Alaska has been the target of $40.5 million in outside spending. Louisiana, the target of $16 million in spending by outside parties so far, will not be decided until that state’s December runoff. The results of 17 House races remain to be decided.

To download a complete file of groups spending in the general election and their return on investment, click here.


In Colorado, Karl Rove (Cory Gardner) beats Tom Steyer (Mark Udall)

A pile of hundred dollar bills

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

The closely watched $94 million Colorado Senate race can be seen as a proxy fight between Karl Rove, the co-founder of Crossroads GPS, one of the nation’s first dark money groups, and Tom Steyer, the former hedge fund guru who emerged as an environmental super PAC sugar daddy.

Crossroads GPS sunk more money into negative ads against Udall than it did against any other candidate nationwide — $8.7 million.

And NextGen Climate Action Committee, the super PAC funded largely through more than $55 million of Steyer’s money, also spent more on negative ads against Gardner than any other candidate — $6.8 million.

Except for the support of the Democratic and Republican parties, the two groups spent more than any other outside groups. And they nearly matched or outspent those party committees: The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spent $8.1 million against Gardner while the National Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee spent $6 million against Udall.

Crossroads GPS and NextGen Climate Action are creatures of the post-Citizens United political landscape. Crossroads GPS is a “social welfare” nonprofit organized under section 501(c)4 of the tax code, and is not required to provide details about its donors. It opened its doors in 2010. NextGen Climate Action Committee, on the other hand, is a super PAC that discloses its donors, ones who can contribute unlimited amounts of cash — and those donors may be people in the broadest sense of the term, including corporations.

Simply put: Before the Citizens United decision in 2010, we wouldn’t have seen a Senate race where two outside groups, one of which does not disclose its donors and both of which may accept unlimited contributions, would account for nearly one out of five dollars spent.

Of course other groups weighed in, too. Indeed, the Colorado Senate race saw more dark money — $35 million, or more than a third of the total spending in the race — than any other race in the country.

Among the other dark money groups that joined in the frey was the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which spent $2.1 million in support of Gardner and $1.6 million against Udall. The League of Conservation Voters, another social welfare nonprofit, spent $1.9 million against Gardner. Ending Spending, a conservative group that focuses on the federal deficit, spent $1.8 million in favor of Gardner and $1.5 million against Udall. The full list can be seen here.

But even groups that disclose their donors don’t always let voters know who is really backing them. Women Supporting Cory Gardner reported spending more than $81,000 opposing Udall. And who donated to Women Supporting Cory Gardner? Well, that would be the Colorado Women’s Alliance. And what is the Colorado Women’s Alliance? A nonprofit group founded in 2011, according to the Colorado Secretary of State’s office. The group’s founder, Debbie Brown, has described it as a counterweight to “liberals whom she says are obsessed with reproductive politics.” As a nonprofit, the group is not required to disclose its donors.


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.