Kitchen cabinet magnate Tom Wolf has tapped his own considerable wealth to help blanket Pennsylvania’s airwaves with more than $11 million worth of television ads, surging ahead of a crowded Democratic primary field and opening up a lead in the general election polls against incumbent Republican Gov. Tom Corbett.
His bid is also getting help from two political groups, PA Families First and NextGen Climate Action Committee, which have already aired an unprecedented $3 million in ads themselves, 10 times more independent spending than occurred statewide in 2010.
Fueled in part by Wolf and also the political groups empowered by a U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Pennsylvania is on top of the heap for ad spending so far in state-level races in 2014, with more than $37 million already spent, followed by Texas ($36.8 million), Florida ($33.7 million), Illinois ($26.4 million) and New York ($14.5 million).
Through Sept. 8, one day before the final five state primary elections, more than $280 million nationwide was spent on television ads promoting and attacking candidates running for state political office in 2014.
The total is actually a third less than at a comparable point in 2010, but more money was provided by independent groups like those in Pennsylvania, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of data from media tracking service Kantar Media/CMAG.
More than 90 of these non-candidate organizations have spent $55 million to shape state-level races in 30 states, accounting for roughly 19 percent of state-level political ad dollars. Four years ago, such groups spent $50 million and made up only 12 percent of spending. That translates to about 30,000 more ads this cycle from such groups.
The top spending independent groups so far are the Republican Governors Association at $11.4 million, Florida’s conservative Let’s Get to Work political committee ($10.8 million), the Democratic Governors Association ($5.1 million), the union-backed Illinois Freedom Political Action Committee ($4.9 million) and the aforementioned NextGen Climate Action Committee ($2.3 million), created by California hedge fund manager and environmentalist Tom Steyer.
The increase in spending by non-candidate committees can be traced in part to the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, decided early in 2010. The ruling gave the green light to unions and corporations to spend unlimited funds on ads supporting or opposing candidates.
Such spending is significant because contributions from corporations and labor unions to candidates in most states are either limited or banned altogether.
Citizens United and a separate lower-court decision led to the creation of super PACs and political nonprofits, which collect such donations and spend the money on advertising and other election materials. The decision forced 24 states including Pennsylvania, which limited such spending, to change their laws.
Even in some states, where the decision had no legal impact, there has still been an increase in spending from such groups. In Nebraska, independent groups upended the traditional dynamic by helping push political outsider and tea party favorite Pete Ricketts ahead of establishment candidate Attorney General Jon Bruning to win the GOP nomination for governor in the May primary.
“Nebraska has never seen the kind of third-party spending like it saw in 2014 from a state perspective,” said Jordan McGrain, the former executive director of the state’s Republican Party who led Bruning’s campaign. “The parties play a role, but at least in Nebraska, it’s no longer a kingmaker role.”
While it’s a midterm cycle for federal elections, more than 6,300 political seats are at stake in the states — the most in four years.
Though television ads are not the only campaign tool used in politics, they do indicate which races are the most competitive and expensive.
Ads Inundate Voters in State Races
Political television ads trying to influence state-level races in the 2014 elections have run more than 540,000 times in 44 states starting in June 2013, according to the analysis of Kantar Media/CMAG data, sucking up the equivalent of 195 days of airtime if run continuously.
Though Pennsylvania has seen the most spending on political television ads for state races overall, a Rhode Islander has likely seen far more ads.
With roughly $5.8 million spent on advertising, the small state led the country with the most spent per eligible voter thanks to an especially fierce Democratic primary contest on Sept. 9 for the seat opened up by Gov. Lincoln Chafee, who is not seeking re-election.
Gina Raimondo defeated and outspent Providence Mayor Angel Taveras and the largely self-funded Clay Pell to win the Democratic nomination, despite opposition from public employee unions because of pension reforms Raimondo initiated as the state’s general treasurer. Cranston Mayor Allan Fung emerged from a comparatively tame Republican primary, in which both candidates combined spent one-fifth the amount on television ads that Raimondo did alone.
In total, an estimated $7.77 was spent per possible voter — enough for coffee and half a dozen donuts, with change to spare, at the famed Allie’s Donuts in North Kingstown, Rhode Island.
That’s too many donuts for one person to eat, said shop owner Anne Drescher, and too much money spent on ads that could instead fund scholarships or fix roads.
“It’s unnecessary for it to be so over the top,” Drescher said. “If there’s any way they can take some of that money and invest it in the state, that would be the best PR plug to win any office.”
Pennsylvania, at $3.99 spent per eligible voter, was second, followed by Maryland ($3.48), Nebraska ($3.12) and Illinois ($2.94). Spending in all five states is significantly higher than what it was at this point in 2010, fueled largely by contested governors’ races.
Spending is down in 24 of 44 states where political advertisements have aired so far this cycle. And spending on gubernatorial contests — the biggest ticket race at the state level — is 60 percent of what it was at this point in 2010.
Four years ago, there were fewer incumbent governors, meaning there were more competitive races and thus a lot more spending on ads. Twenty-nine sitting governors are seeking re-election in 2014 compared to 13 in 2010.
At the same point in 2010, for example, the open gubernatorial contest in California alone had accounted for more than $100 million in estimated advertising spending. This cycle, with favored Democrat Jerry Brown seeking re-election, less than $2 million has been spent.
“The playing field is very different this year,” said Tyler Johnson, a political science professor at the University of Oklahoma. “You have 20-plus governors running for re-election, so you’re immediately sort of eliminating in most of those races one competitive primary.”
The lack of a compelling top-of-the-ticket race in so many states appears to have led to a lower voter turnout. At least 28 states showed lower primary turnout rates than in 2010, according to numbers from state election officials across the country.
Top Ticket Races Dominate the Airwaves
But even at diminished levels, the 36 governors’ races across the country have fueled more than $208 million, or nearly three-quarters of all the estimated state-level advertising spending this cycle.
The top five most expensive races overall have been gubernatorial races, with Pennsylvania ($35.5 million), Florida ($31.8 million) and Illinois ($26 million) leading the pack. Andrew Cuomo’s bid to remain the Democratic governor of New York put the Empire State fourth, with $13.2 million in spending, while blue-leaning Maryland came in at fifth ($12.1 million) thanks to a heated Democratic primary for the open seat being vacated by Gov. Martin O’Malley due to term limits.
Florida has the second-most expensive governor’s race in the country despite the fact that incumbent Republican Gov. Rick Scott and the Democratic nominee, former Republican Gov. Charlie Crist, faced minimal competition in the Aug. 26 primaries.
Heavy spending there by the parties and other non-candidate groups — one closely associated with Scott — was geared toward the November general election from the beginning.
Non-candidate groups have spent more on that contest than any other state race nationwide. Unlike in other states, Florida’s campaign finance laws allow candidates to work closely with seemingly outside groups, rendering candidates’ own campaigns less relevant.
Illinois’ gubernatorial contest, like the one in Pennsylvania, features a wealthy businessman who has spent millions to fund a challenge against the unpopular incumbent — in this case a Democrat, Gov. Pat Quinn.
Illinois venture capitalist Bruce Rauner narrowly secured the GOP nomination after spending 40 times more on television ads than his closest opponent, state Sen. Kirk Dillard, in the state’s March 18 Republican primary.
Winning the television ad war is no guarantee of victory at the ballot, however.
In Texas, the heated primary for lieutenant governor helped make that seat the sixth-most expensive race overall through Sept. 8 at $11.9 million, eclipsing even the state’s own gubernatorial race. Incumbent Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst spent nearly half of that in the four-way race, with 70 percent more spots airing than his closest challenger, state Sen. Dan Patrick. Yet Dewhurst still lost in the primary runoff for the state’s No. 2 office.
Patrick was able to secure endorsements from influential conservative groups such as Texans for Fiscal Responsibility, a nonprofit chaired by oil executive Tim Dunn. The group typically does not air many television ads but uses direct mail and online messaging to energize conservative voters, according to Texas political consultant Ray Sullivan, who helped run Gov. Rick Perry’s 2012 presidential campaign.
“Candidates in the Republican primary who secured those endorsements generally won, and they usually won over better-funded opponents,” Sullivan said.
A Third-Wheel Joins the Race
In this election cycle, more than 90 non-candidate organizations have run ads some 126,000 times, sometimes dueling against each other.
The groups vary from small, seemingly state-specific groups, such as the Campaign for Maine political action committee, to sprawling national political machines with franchises in multiple states.
In six states, such outside groups purchased the majority of the political television ads. And in at least 17 races, the groups spent more than the candidates themselves.
The top independent spender nationally has been the Republican Governors Association, which along with its state-level subsidiaries has spent $11.4 million on ads to help elect Republican governors.
The GOP governors’ group has also been the biggest donor to the second highest spender nationwide, Florida’s Let’s Get to Work, which has spent more than $10 million in ads to boost the re-election of Scott, the Republican governor.
The organization functions differently than most so-called “outside” groups, having been initially seeded by a trust belonging to Scott’s wife. The ads often feature Scott speaking directly to the camera, a level of coordination between the group and the candidate that would be illegal in most states.
The Democratic Governors Association, which along with the Republican Governors Association advocates for the election of their parties’ gubernatorial candidates, took the third spot, with $5.1 million spent so far on TV ads when including its state-level subsidiaries.
Union-backed Illinois Freedom PAC spent $4.9 million attacking wealthy Republican gubernatorial nominee Rauner.
NextGen Climate Action Committee, the group funded by deep-pocketed environmentalist Tom Steyer, has sponsored $2.3 million in ads criticizing the policies of incumbent Republican governors in Florida and Pennsylvania, sometimes widening its scope beyond environmental issues to hit hot-button topics such as education.
Already active in 14 states combined, the two governors’ associations have covered the most ground nationwide. The groups, referred to as 527 committees based on the section of the federal tax code under which they are organized, can accept unlimited donations from individuals, corporations and unions.
They can give directly to candidates in some states. In Pennsylvania, for example, the RGA has donated $1.8 million to Corbett’s campaign.
But they also often air their own ads, a strategy that frees them to spend unlimited amounts in states where contributions to candidates are limited — or where union or corporate funders are not allowed to give to candidates directly.
In Connecticut, the two groups are using such proxy organizations to help prop up gubernatorial candidates who have accepted public funds for their campaigns. By accepting the handouts, the candidates are limited in how much they may raise, but the groups are circumventing those restrictions, and have increased total ad spending by 18 percent.
The newly formed independent group Grow Connecticut Inc. has so far spent roughly $375,000 to air TV ads attacking Democrat and incumbent Gov. Dannel Malloy. The group received at least 94 percent of its money from the Republican Governors Association.
On the other side, the Democratic Governors Association recently fired back by pouring more than $1.2 million into Connecticut Forward, an independent organization which has aired an estimated $425,000 worth of ads attacking Malloy’s rival, GOP nominee and former ambassador to Ireland Tom Foley.
Playing the Bad Cop
Subject to varying state laws, outside spending groups often don’t have to disclose as much as candidates do about who funds them or where they spend their money, effectively masking who is really calling the shots.
Arizona gubernatorial hopeful Christine Jones was on the receiving end of such a group — the Virginia-based 60 Plus Association, which has been connected to the vast network of conservative nonprofits overseen by billionaires Charles and David Koch.
After the secretive group ran attack ads against her, she lost the GOP primary. She now feels such groups ought to disclose who funds them.
“It’s important for democracy, because in the end, everybody has a motivation,” said the former executive of website domain giant Go Daddy Group. “You might be motivated by money, you might be motivated by power, you might be motivated by getting a pet project put through. Everybody’s motivated by something.”
Citizens United did away with Arizona’s ban on the use of corporate and union money to influence elections, according to a tally by the National Conference of State Legislatures.
It’s not uncommon for such groups to be the ones slinging mud while the candidates they support keep it clean. More than two-thirds of ads aired by such groups attacked a candidate. By comparison, candidates were far more positive, with only 14 percent of their ads criticizing opponents.
For candidates, independently sponsored ads that bash their opponents have long provided the “best of both worlds,” according to Johnson, the University of Oklahoma professor.
“They get outsiders who are willing to attack and get those messages out there, but then there’s the sort of plausible deniability of, you know, ‘That’s not our ad’ and ‘We didn’t approve of that,’ ” Johnson said.
A Turning Tide?
The groups have made significant advances in the television ad wars since 2010, when the U.S. Supreme Court decision opened the floodgates.
Democratic strategist Joe Trippi, who ran Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign, has watched the spread of these organizations from the federal level to the states.
“That phenomenon is growing,” Trippi said. “It was in its infancy in 2010, and so I think that actually more groups exist today.”
But it’s not clear if the greater role such third-party ads are playing on the airwaves this election cycle is a trend that will continue beyond this year — or is just a byproduct of lower spending by incumbent candidates, according to Ken Goldstein, a University of San Francisco politics professor and expert on political advertising who advises Kantar Media/CMAG on its data.
“If you have outside groups who are raising a fixed amount of money in an election year, they’re going to spend it no matter what,” Goldstein said. “And so, by definition then, they’re going to comprise a greater proportion of the spending.”
Still, such groups have expanded their reach and moved beyond just the marquee governors’ races to spread their resources down the ballot this cycle, airing more ads than four years ago in races for state school superintendent and state supreme court justice.
Lower on the Ballot, but Not in Cash
The contest for Oklahoma education superintendent is the 25th most expensive state-level race nationwide in terms of television advertising spending. With $2.1 million spent to air ads more than 4,400 times, the race has surpassed the amount spent to elect governors in at least 14 states.
Incumbent Superintendent Janet Barresi lost the Republican primary despite outspending her opponents on television ads by more than a 2-1 ratio.
An independent group, Oklahomans for Public School Excellence, ran an attack ad against Barresi just a handful of times, but it reinforced the mounting criticism of Barresi’s past support of the Common Core curriculum. Opposition from both the right and the left has grown against the Obama Administration-endorsed education initiative for an array of reasons, including the fear that it removes curriculum control from local decision-makers.
Johnson, the University of Oklahoma professor, said criticism of Barresi’s position on the policy ultimately turned the tide of the race.
Nationwide, state supreme court races have attracted more money spent on TV ads this cycle than in 2010 by a 3-1 ratio, with roughly $3.1 million spent to air ads in six states.
Races to retain three Tennessee justices clocked in as the most expensive with about $1.4 million in ads, followed by a North Carolina primary for a single seat that topped $1.1 million. Independent groups dominated the races in those states and also in an election in Arkansas as they tried to sway voters in those nonpartisan elections.
The independent groups haven’t all been victorious. North Carolina State Supreme Court Justice Robin Hudson is advancing to the November general election despite an estimated $689,000 the group Justice for All NC spent attacking her on the airwaves, saying she “sides with child predators.” She had dissented against applying electronic monitoring provisions to sex offenders whose crimes had occurred before the provisions were enacted.
Three Tennessee Supreme Court justices won retention elections — in which judges ran unopposed and voters decided whether they got to keep their seats — after their campaigns and an outside group fought off attacks from two other outside groups.
But in Arkansas, spending by the Law Enforcement Alliance of America had a particularly outsized influence in the state’s sole contested Supreme Court race between candidates Tim Cullen and Robin Wynne. The group spent nearly $320,000 on TV ads, accounting for nearly $9 out of every $10 spent in the race.
One ad claimed that Cullen had called child pornography a “victimless crime” while representing a convicted sex offender who was appealing his sentence. Cullen disputed the claims, and his campaign countered with its own TV ad that aimed to set the record straight. But ultimately Cullen was outspent, and he told the Center for Public Integrity the group’s ads were a major factor in his 4-percentage-point loss.
It’s not clear why the Virginia-based group was active in the Arkansas race. As a nonprofit regulated under section 501(c)(4) of the federal tax code, the LEAA does not have to publicly reveal its donors. In the past, the group has been backed by the National Rifle Association and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The LEAA did not respond to calls requesting comment.
The outside spending was unprecedented for an Arkansas judicial race, and according to former state Supreme Court Justice Annabelle Imber Tuck, the secrecy surrounding the LEAA’s funders could be particularly problematic if the funders of the ads were ever to come before the court.
“They influenced the election, or tried to, and now they’re parties in a case, but you don’t know that,” Tuck said. “There’s no accountability.”
More Ads Coming in the Final Stretch
After the primaries nailed down which candidates will compete in the general election, such outside groups started to assume an even greater role, rising from 16 percent of the ads before primary elections to 26 percent of ads afterward.
In Pennsylvania, for example, NextGen Climate Action Committee and the Democratic Governors Association-backed PA Families First only jumped in after the May 20 primary. Both groups have attacked the Republican incumbent, Corbett, for cutting education spending.
Corbett, in response, upped his spending after his uncontested primary, buying more than $5 million worth of ads since July to defend his record and attack Wolf, his Democratic challenger.
If the past is any guide, the bulk of political spending is almost certainly still to come. In 2010, 55 percent of the overall spending came in the final two months. But outside groups represented a diminished share of the ads as state and local parties upped their spending.
Even if advertising spending in all state races doesn’t reach the 2010 total of $921 million, some states and races are poised to blow past their levels from four years ago.
Pennsylvania’s gubernatorial race has already topped the amount of ad spending made in all of 2010. A continued barrage of advertising aided by outside groups could push the race to record levels of spending.
“It’s sort of like we’ve opened the doors,” said William Rosenberg, a political science professor at Drexel University who has been following the race. “Money is an expression of free speech, and if you have more of it than someone else, you might have a bigger voice, a bigger megaphone.”