Close Special House Elections Attract Big Spending

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By Kenneth P. Doyle

A surge in Democratic fundraising in the wake of President Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 presidential race has helped make Democratic congressional candidates competitive in special elections for U.S. House seats from Kansas and Georgia that usually are safely Republican.

While it remains uncertain whether electoral victory will follow the Democrats’ success in raising money in these unexpectedly close races, the phenomenon has already had an effect—big spending by outside groups on the Republican side, funded by corporations and undisclosed donors.

The April 11 election in Kansas’s fourth congressional district has drawn about $500,000 in total campaign spending, including about $200,000 in last-minute money from Republican groups, according to reports on independent campaign expenditures filed with the Federal Election Commission.

Far surpassing the price tag of the Kansas race is the contest in Georgia’s sixth congressional district, set for April 18. The cost of the campaign to fill the seat is approaching $20 million, including more than $7 million in outside money, mostly from Republican groups. That seat was left vacant when former Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.) became Trump’s Secretary of Health and Human Services.

Republicans Dominate Outside Spending

Dominating the outside spending in these races are the Congressional Leadership Fund, a super political action committee linked to House GOP leaders, and the National Republican Congressional Committee, a national party committee. Both are seeking intensely to keep the House seats for the GOP.

Kansas’s fourth district, which includes Wichita, was represented by former Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.) before he left to become CIA director in the Trump administration. The special election to fill Pompeo’s seat pits Kansas state Treasurer Ron Estes, a Republican, against Democrat James Thompson, a Wichita lawyer and political newcomer who has nearly matched Estes in fundraising, according to the most recent FEC reports filed last month.

Thompson had raised nearly $250,000 by March 22, compared to just more than $310,000 for Estes, the FEC reports showed. Meanwhile, all of the reported independent expenditures in the Kansas race—more than $180,000—have been on the Republican side. Almost all the spending, which has gone for phone banks and mailings, has come from the Congressional Leadership Fund and NRCC.

Georgia Democrat Raised $8.3 Million

While Thompson’s fundraising prowess has been impressive, the amount of money collected in the Georgia race by Democrat Jon Ossoff, a 30-year-old former congressional staffer and filmmaker, has been particularly notable. Ossoff raised more than $8.3 million and spent nearly $6.2 million by March 29, the closeout date of the most recent FEC reports.

The leading Democrat in the race, Ossoff faces nearly a dozen other candidates, mostly Republicans, in an open primary. If he can gain more than 50 percent of the vote on April 18, Ossoff could win the race outright, without having to face a runoff pitting him against a single Republican candidate and unified GOP opposition.

Ossoff has raised more than three times the $1.8 million collected by Dan Moody, the top fundraising Republican in the Georgia race, according to the most recent FEC reports. He also has raised more than all the Republican candidates combined.

GOP Ad Links Ossoff to Terrorists

But Ossoff’s campaign spending is being matched by Republican outside spending, led by the Congressional Leadership Fund and the NRCC. The two have spent about $7 million in the Georgia race, according to independent expenditure reports filed with the FEC.

Television ads run by the Congressional Leadership Fund haven’t supported a Republican candidate but have attacked Ossoff and sought to link him to terrorism, including by showing an image of Osama bin Laden. The super PAC’s ad cites work Ossoff did for the Al Jazeera TV network, which it said “has been described as a mouthpiece for terrorists.”

Democrats denounced the ad, and noted that the Republican super PAC’s recent funding has come mainly from the nonprofit American Action Network, which is funded by undisclosed donors and headed by former Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.), who they said was a registered foreign agent for Saudi Arabia.

Individual, Big Company Donors

Ossoff’s fundraising included more than $8 million in individual contributions, with more than $5.6 million in “unitemized” money from contributors giving less than $200 each. That reflected increased appeals to small donors by Democratic groups, including the leading liberal PAC, ActBlue.

The PAC, which channels online contributions to Democratic candidates and has raised over $1.5 billion since its inception more than a decade ago, has had some of its greatest success since Trump’s election.

According to its blog, ActBlue raised nearly $112 million in the first quarter of 2017, more than four times the amount it collected right after the 2014 elections and seven times what it raised in the aftermath of Barack Obama’s re-election in 2012.

Meanwhile, Republicans are relying on corporate money and the nonprofit group American Action Network (AAN) to fund the main GOP House super PAC, the Congressional Leadership Fund.

An FEC report filed by the super PAC last month said it had raised nearly $4.5 million since the beginning of the year, with $3.5 million coming from AAN, a so-called Section 501(c)(4) group that doesn’t disclose its donors. Watchdog groups have filed court challenges trying to force the FEC to require disclosure by AAN and other conservative nonprofits, but these efforts haven’t succeeded so far.

Other recent contributions to the Congressional Leadership Fund have come mainly from big companies, including $250,000 from an affiliate of energy giant Chevron Corp and $100,000 from an affiliate of private prison company GEO Group.

Other contributors to the Republican super PAC, so far this year, include a range of companies from Anthem Inc. and AT&T Services Inc. to Microsoft Corp., MillerCoors, the electric utility Southern Company Services Inc. and others.

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

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Paul Hendrie at pHendrie@bna.com

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