Campaign Spending Shifts Heavily to Congress

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By Kenneth P. Doyle

May 25 — Independent campaign spending to influence this year's federal elections has shifted dramatically away from the presidential race and toward races for the House and Senate, according to the latest disclosure reports filed with the Federal Election Commission.

The total of nearly $24 million in independent expenditures reported to the FEC since May 1 includes $18.5 million for congressional races. That's more than three times the $5.5 million in independent spending reported to influence the presidential race.

The latest FEC reports reviewed by Bloomberg BNA reflect a winding down of spending for the presidential primary race and a gearing up of spending aimed at influencing the Nov. 8 general election, still more than six months away.

For example, much of the $13.2 million in independent expenditures in Senate races reported this month was targeted at key races in a handful of states that could determine majority control of the Senate.

A running total of independent campaign spending compiled by the nonprofit Center for Responsive Politics from FEC reports shows that, until now, spending in this year's presidential race has been dominant. Presidential spending so far has totaled about $269 million, or about 72 percent of the total of nearly $375 million in outside spending in this election cycle, according to the center.

However, the most recent FEC reports show a change in the pattern and indicate spending in congressional races may be much more of a factor as the November election approaches.

Big Spending for Senate Control

FEC rules require frequent reporting of large independent expenditures—defined as spending on television ads and other widely disseminated messages advocating for votes for or against candidates. This money is spent by super PACs and other outside spending groups not formally linked to a candidate.

All large independent expenditures aggregating over $10,000 must be reported to the FEC within 48 hours of when a TV ad or other communication is aired. Reports must be filed within 24 hours in the weeks before an election. These 48-hour and 24-hour FEC reports provide a gauge of the intensity and targets of outside campaign spending as an election approaches.

Millions of dollars in television ad spending in key Senate races is coming from Republican-allied groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the nation's largest business lobby, and Freedom Partners Action Fund, a super PAC linked to Koch Industries Inc. executives Charles and David Koch and their network of conservative donors. Most of the money is focused on defending Republican-held Senate seats in New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, as well as gaining for Republicans the Nevada seat held by retiring Sen. Harry Reid, the Democratic leader.

The Chamber has reported spending more than $10.6 million on campaign messages this year, according to FEC filings, nearly all in a few key Senate races. Similarly, the Freedom Partners super PAC has reported a total of nearly $7 million in independent expenditures, nearly all in those same Senate races.

Pro-Democratic spending in some of these same races is coming mainly from the Senate Majority PAC, a Democratic-allied super PAC funded by wealthy Democratic donors and unions. Total spending by the super PAC has now reached $5.4 million, all in four Senate races: Nevada, New Hampshire, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

Pro-Clinton PAC Targets Trump

Independent spending in the presidential race also has begun to focus on the general election contest, now expected to pit Republican presumptive nominee Donald Trump against Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton.

The pro-Clinton super PAC Priorities USA Action reported spending $2 million this month on television ads opposing Trump. That was expected to be the first salvo in a battle that could see millions more in anti-Trump spending by the super PAC.

Priorities USA Action has raised more than $75 million for the 2016 campaign, so far, and currently has more than $46 million in cash on hand, according to the most recent FEC disclosure reports. Clinton's campaign committee, meanwhile, has raised just under $190 million and has more than $30 million in cash.

There was mixed evidence, so far, of possible major independent spending to support Trump, though recent news reports indicated that some big Republican donors are beginning to line up behind the presumptive nominee.

Trump already has withstood a barrage of spending by super PACs and other groups that opposed him in the primaries (See previous story, 05/03/16). More than $45 million worth of ad spending by anti-Trump groups was reported, according to FEC reports tracked by the nonprofit Campaign Finance Institute.

Little Pro-Trump Spending Seen

Independent spending to support Trump in the primaries was only about $2.5 million. That, along with $56 million spent so far by Trump's campaign committee—including more than $43 million of the candidate's own money—was significantly less than the amount spent to support several of his primary rivals. Yet, Trump was able to prevail in the primaries largely by dominating media coverage of the campaign.

A high-profile super PAC said to be ready to support Trump in the general election campaign, called Great America PAC, continues to raise and spend relatively modest amounts of money, according to FEC reports. A recent Wall Street Journal article said the super PAC was touting a new list of supporters that included major donors to past Republican presidential campaigns. However, the most recent disclosure report filed by Great America PAC with the FEC showed no new large contributions received in April, the month that Trump became the presumptive Republican nominee.

The pro-Trump super PAC did raise over $460,000 last month in smaller individual contributions, including $412,000 from contributions of less than $200 each. It also received a new loan of $50,000 from Eric Beach, a California political consultant who, along with Jewelry Exchange owner Bill Doddridge, helped establish the pro-Trump super PAC earlier this year.

Also still unclear is whether Trump, himself, even wants the support of a super PAC. Trump's campaign attorney, Donald McGahn, a former Republican FEC commissioner now with the firm Jones Day, sent a letter to Great America PAC during the primary season disavowing the PAC and calling for it to return any money raised to support Trump (See previous story, 04/25/16).

The campaign has not made any recent public statements about Great America PAC, though Trump has indicated generally that he is moving away from self-funding his campaign in order to help raise money for the Republican Party.

To contact the reporter on this story: Kenneth P. Doyle in Washington at kdoyle@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Heather Rothman at hrothman@bna.com