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Sept. 21 — Campaign money pouring into super political action committees closely linked to Senate Republican and Democratic leaders is expected to finance a high-stakes television advertising battle in the final stretch of important Senate races, the latest campaign finance disclosure reports filed with Federal Election Commission indicated.
Meanwhile, other campaign spending groups that have been sponsoring TV ads until now are expected to ease up in the final weeks of the campaign, switching to other types of electioneering efforts to help elect favored candidates. An example is the Koch network of conservative groups, including Freedom Partners and Americans for Prosperity, which have provided millions of dollars in support to Republican Senate candidates this year.
James Davis, a spokesman for Freedom Partners, said that the network groups tied to Charles and David Koch, who head Koch Industries Inc., plan to shift away from TV ad spending in the final weeks of the campaign to concentrate on direct voter mobilization through canvassing and other efforts on the ground.
Continuing the air war will be the leading Republican and Democratic super PACs, the Senate Leadership Fund and the Senate Majority PAC, which are expected to dominate television advertising in the final weeks of the campaign.
These super PACs had a combined total of more than $50 million in cash on hand at the beginning of September, according to the latest FEC reports. The money is expected to be spent on ads in just a handful of states, including New Hampshire, Ohio and Pennsylvania, with races that will decide majority control of the Senate on Election Day Nov. 8.
The leading Republican super PAC, the Senate Leadership Fund, which is closely linked to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), reported a total of $28 million in contributions in just the month of August, according to its latest FEC report filed Sept. 20. That included an eye-popping $20 million contribution from one married couple: Las Vegas Sands Corp. casino owner Sheldon Adelson and his wife Miriam.
Meanwhile, the leading Democratic super PAC, the Senate Majority PAC, linked to Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) reported $11.6 million raised in August.
The Democrats' PAC has raised a total of more than $40 million in the current election cycle through Aug. 31, mainly in large contributions from unions and wealthy individuals. The Senate Majority PAC had more than $12 million in cash on hand for the final two months of the general election campaign.
That total was far outstripped by the Republicans' Senate Leadership Fund, which has raised a total of nearly $51 million and had more than $40 million on hand for the final stretch of the campaign—more than three times as much as the Senate Democrats' super PAC.
The money collected by the Senate Leadership Fund and the Senate Majority PAC is expected to be spent mainly in TV ads in critical states. Meanwhile, the pro-Republican Koch network groups say they will shift to grass-roots voter mobilization, and Democratic-leaning unions and liberal groups may do the same.
Davis, the Freedom Partners spokesman, told Bloomberg BNA in an e-mail: “As we get closer to the election, the airwaves get more and more crowded and ads are less impactful, but we will continue to monitor television advertising and look for strategic opportunities to go back up.”
“We've also been able to more narrowly define our turnout universe from 10 million across 8 states to 5 million,” he said. “Therefore, we've decided to double down on direct voter contact and prioritize grass roots, digital, direct mail, and phones over television advertising.”
Freedom Partners Action Fund, the super PAC funded by Koch Industries Chairman Charles Koch and others, has sponsored more than $26 million worth of TV ads in pivotal Senate races this year but appeared to be winding down its ad spending as the election draws closer. The super PAC reported to the FEC that it had less than $3 million in cash on hand at the end of August after spending over $9 million during that month.
AFP, the Koch-backed nonprofit organization that handles most of the Koch network's canvassing and voter mobilization activities, doesn't report it's fundraising activities to the FEC. The organization has reported more than $6.2 million to the FEC in spending for “express advocacy” activities calling for votes for or against candidates. This includes some TV ad spending, along with mailings, digital ads and other campaign messaging.
AFP recently announced “seven-figure” TV ad buys opposing Democratic Senate candidates in Florida and Pennsylvania, which the group said would be aired in addition to grass roots efforts that include knocking on tens of thousands of doors and placing hundreds of thousands of phone calls.
The most recent AFP ads attacked Democrat Katie McGinty in Pennsylvania, who is challenging incumbent Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.). The ads accused McGinty of giving “handouts” to failed corporations as head of Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Protection.
In Florida, the AFP ads attacked Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-Fla.) in his Senate race against incumbent Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.). The ads attacked Murphy for supporting an immigration program known as EB-5 that allows wealthy foreign investors to have a path to U.S. citizenship. AFP cited campaign finance reports indicating beneficiaries of the program made contributions supporting Murphy.
Asked if it was fair for AFP, which doesn't disclose its donors, to criticize Murphy based on reported contributions, an AFP spokesman and the nonprofit organization viewed the two questions as separate.
“The privacy of our donors is a separate issue” from the group's ads, Andres Malave, spokesman for the Florida chapter of Americans for Prosperity, told Bloomberg BNA in a phone interview. He said that AFP's donors “have a First Amendment right” to contribute without having their identities disclosed.
The group, which operates as a “social welfare” organization under Section 501(c)(4) of the tax code, was founded and continues to be supported by the Kochs, but details of its financial support, including other donors, have never been revealed.
The Pennsylvania and Florida races are two of about a half-dozen close Senate contests that are expected to determine control of the Senate and they have drawn the most campaign money this year.
Spending in these races is expected to again challenge records after a 2014 campaign season that saw spending in Senate races reach $100 million for the first time (214 DER A-1, 11/5/14).
Total spending in the North Carolina Senate race in 2014, for example, reached more than $115 million, according to FEC reports analyzed by the nonprofit Center for Responsive Politics. The second-most expensive race that year was in Colorado, reaching a total of more than $98 million.
Both races involved Democratic incumbent senators who ultimately were defeated by Republican challengers: then-Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) was defeated by now-Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) and then-Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) lost to now-Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.).
The shoe is on the other foot this year, with nearly all of the most expensive races involving Republican incumbents fending off Democratic challengers. These include the Toomey-McGinty race in Pennsylvania and the Rubio-Murphy race in Florida. Other high-stakes race include Ohio, where incumbent Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) faces Democratic challenger and former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland (D) and New Hampshire, where Republican incumbent Sen. Kelly Ayotte faces Democratic challenger Maggie Hassan.
The Pennsylvania race leads all other Senate contests this year in terms of campaign spending, with more than $76 million in total, so far, from candidates and outside groups, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. That is followed by Ohio, with over $60 million in total spending, New Hampshire, with nearly $55 million.
The surging spending in Senate races, especially by outside groups, appears to be driven at least partly by the fact some of the biggest donors on the Republican side are directing their money down the ballot due to a lack of enthusiasm for Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump.
The most recent FEC reports showed Trump continuing to run behind Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton by almost 3-to-1 in terms of campaign money raised by the candidates' primary campaign committees and supporting super PACs. Clinton's fundraising total stood at about $519 million at the beginning of September, compared to about $190 million for Trump, FEC reports analyzed by the Center for Responsive Politics showed.
A new report on TV ads being aired in the presidential race indicated this imbalance in funding is being reflected in the number ads actually appearing for each candidate. The nationwide study by the Wesleyan Media Project, affiliated with Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., found that, since mid-August, when the Trump campaign began airing ads in the general election, ads intended to benefit Clinton have outnumbered ads benefitting Trump be more than 2-to-1.
The Clinton campaign and allied organizations—including the super PAC Priorities USA—have aired almost 62,000 ads, compared with about 27,000 spots by Trump and groups that support him, the Wesleyan study found.
The study noted overall presidential ad volume in the general election continues to remain lower than in the 2012 campaign. While ads on the Democratic side are down somewhat from the last presidential election, ads on the Republican side are down sharply, due to lack of outside spending in the presidential race.
Trump ads sponsored directly by his campaign have reached a level similar that of Republican presidential campaign of Mitt Romney in 2012, the Wesleyan study found. But, there has been a 90 percent drop in outside group ads benefiting the Republican nominee, leaving Trump lagging behind Clinton in ad volume in most media markets.
“It seems clear that the party committees and especially pro-Republican groups are putting more energy into the race for the U.S. Senate than they are for the White House,” said Michael Franz, co-director or the Wesleyan Media Project.
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