Big money is rolling into Arizona as a dramatic cast of candidates duke it out for Senator Jeff Flake’s seat in the upcoming midterms.
Nearly $310,000 has been spent by super political action committees (PACs) in the elections, much of it coming from big money interests like GOP mega-donor Robert Mercer.
Now, more money may soon enter one of the most contentious races in 2018, and that could mark a massive shift in close-polling races like Arizona’s Republican primaries.
National interest in the race sparked in October when the Arizona Republican announced in a passionate speech on the floor of the Senate that he would not seek re-election.
“I will be better able to represent the people of Arizona and to better serve my country and my conscience by freeing myself from the political considerations that consume far too much bandwidth and would cause me to compromise far too many principles,” Flake said in the speech.
“To that end, I am announcing today that my service in the Senate will conclude at the end of my term in early January 2019.”
Attention only increased as more political figureheads entered a race the New York Times recently dubbed a “microcosm of the country’s politics.“
House Republican Martha McSally, the first female US fighter pilot, holds a slight lead in polls. She’s being challenged by former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who made headlines when he was pardoned by President Donald Trump in August after being convicted of criminal contempt of court. State senator Kelli Ward, who was endorsed by former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, has also made a bid in the Republican primary.
On the Democratic side, House Democrat Kyrsten Sinema, the first openly bisexual woman to be elected to Congress, is campaigning as a moderate and leads the ticket. She’s being trailed by a number of low-polling Democrats.
But of the $357,230 of outside spending that has made its way into the Arizona Senate race, $285,725 of the money has come from a single group: KelliPAC, a super PAC organized to elect Kelli Ward.
FEC records show the super PAC has been bankrolled by three big budget Republican donors, primarily megadonor Robert Mercer, who donated $300,000.
KelliPAC has also received two $10,000 contributions from Dallas philanthropist Elloine Clark and Cato Institute board member Jeff Yass.
Ward leads in outside spending support with $308,984 followed by Sinema with $28,550 and McSally with $696. $19,000 has been spent against Ward as well, FEC records show.
Despite that, Sinema and McSally lead the money-race by a significant margin. Sinema has raised the most with $3.9 million, according to her end-of-year filings. McSally follows closely with $3.8 million. Ward trails with $1.4 million. There is no FEC data available for Arpaio’s campaign for fundraising or outside spending on his behalf.
Despite Ward’s gap, super PAC spending can change the tenor of tight primary elections like Arizona’s, said Tara Malloy, senior director of appellate litigation and strategy at Campaign Legal Center.
Candidates with less direct funding can be “kept alive by their billionaire backer,” Malloy said.
“A candidate whose spending is on life support can be somewhat resuscitated by outside spending,” she said.
Instead of support and funds coalescing around one front-runner, Malloy said, primaries can start to get messy with a larger crowd of primary contenders who would have normally been pushed out of the competition.
Malloy cited the 17 candidates in the 2016 Republican presidential primary as just one example.
“Their campaign would have been dead if it was just popular support,” she said. “Now they get to fight on.”
In February, big money continued to enter the race, when the super PAC “DefendArizona” registered with the FEC to a UPS address in Glendale, Arizona. The PAC’s treasurer, Benjamin Ottenhoff, is a political consultant and former CFO of the Republican National Committee and National Republican Congressional Committee, according to his bio.
Ottenhoff is listed as treasurer of 40 different super PACs, joint fundraising committees, leadership PACs and campaigns that have funneled millions into predominantly Republican coffers this cycle.
Of the 40 groups registered to Ottenhoff, 27 have either raised or spent money in the 2018 election cycle, CRP records show. Those 27 groups have raised more than $2.56 million and spent more than $2.3 million this cycle.
Ottenhoff did not respond to interview requests from OpenSecrets.