Midterm Ad Onslaught: Outside Groups $100M Ahead of Where They Were in 2010

And The Real Action Hasn't Even Started Yet

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All politics might be local, but these days political money isn't.

Outside groups are on track to rival candidate spending and, like two years ago, will once again dominate the airwaves in this election year. And these figures only include publicly available data collected by the Federal Election Commission.

FEC records show that at this point in the last midterm election, in 2010, outside groups operating independently of federal candidate campaigns had spent about $58 million to help elect or defeat those candidates. The total spent by those groups at the beginning of August this year has reached $152 million.

And the biggest spending won't even start until September.

Russ Chroma, spokesman for the Center for Responsive Politics, said spending on advertising not only will exceed what was spent in the last mid-term election, but could come close to the $1 billion that was spent in 2012, when the presidential race released a torrent of ad buying by independent groups.

"It's a little hard to predict what will happen but the trend is up and up and up," Mr. Chroma said.

But the Center for Responsive Politics and other campaign finance advocates can closely track only the actions of outside groups that report to the FEC.

Something missing?
Anyone following this year's political advertising will notice that heavyweight Americans for Prosperity is conspicuously absent from the charts at left -- as are other groups that are spending big on hot races. Americans for Prosperity, founded by conservative billionaire brothers David and Charles Koch, has been spending the bulk of its money on "advocacy" ads slamming the Affordable Care Act, rather than ads that urge the election or defeat of a specific candidate by name. And advocacy-ad expenditures don't have to be reported to the FEC unless they run within 60 days of an election. Other groups are also exploiting this loophole. These include Democratic groups like the Patriot Majority and the League of Conservation Voters.

"This is all untraceable money," Mr. Chroma said.

Republican and Democratic operatives are tracking some of this spending from ad-buy filings at broadcast stations, as are companies like Kantar Media that track advertising spending.

They estimate Americans for Prosperity alone has spent between $20 million and $35 million so far in this political season. The Koch Brothers say they will spend a minimum of $125 million before Election Day.

But Meredith McGehee, policy director at the Campaign Legal Center, said even Kantar Media can't capture the full picture of spending because it doesn't track all ads in every market.

"The disclosure of what is being put on the air is only part of the picture. In some ways it's only the tip of the iceberg," Ms. McGehee said.

As far as groups that are disclosing their spending to the FEC, the biggest ad-buyer so far is Emily's List, a group that has spent $31.9 million supporting pro-choice Democratic women candidates. The second-biggest spender is the Senate Majority PAC, a Democratic group helping Democrats in tough races this year that has spent $31.4 million pummeling Republican candidates with negative ads. The group's major funders include unions and billionaire Tom Steyer, who has so far poured more than $20 million into this fund and two other liberal PACs, including the NextGen Climate Action Committee, which has spent $15.6 million.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which usually backs Republicans follows, has spent nearly $15 million. The Senate Conservatives Fund, has spent $13 million.

Then there's the American Bridge 21st Century, which has spent $11.8 million and is supported by liberal billionaire George Soros. The Tea Party Patriots fund spent $10.4 million, followed by the Karl Rove-inspired American Crossroads, which reported spending $9.9 million, but also spends money on ads that are not reported to the FEC.

American Crossroads spent $70 million in the last midterm election and has promised to spend more this year.

Just getting started
An explosion of ad buying by that group and all others is expected beginning this month and continuing through the weeks before the Nov. 4 election. Last time, nearly two-thirds of independent expenditures were made in the last few weeks before Election Day.

That's not to say a lot of money on advertising has already been spent. For example the GOP primary race between Sen. Thad Cochran and tea party-backed Chris McDaniels drew more than $11 million in spending by outside groups that reported to the FEC and millions more from Americans for Prosperity and groups that didn't report their ad buys.

But so far, the most money has been spent in North Carolina on the political slugfest between Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan and Republican opponent state House Speaker Thom Tillis.

About $13.7 million has been reported in outside spending on that race. But the involvement of outside groups in the race is considered far, far greater. Americans for Prosperity alone has spent more than $8 million in ad buys not reported to the FEC, according to Democrats keeping track of ads in the race.

The Senate Majority PAC has told the FEC it has spent about $6.8 million in North Carolina. It also jumped into the race early, running its first ads last fall defending Hagan against attacks sponsored by American Crossroads and Americans for Prosperity.

Most attack ads hit Ms. Hagan for her support of the Affordable Care Act. But in a recent 30-second spot called "More Debt," American Crossroads/CrossroadsGPS) attacks the Democratic senator for her votes to raise the debt ceiling.

An analysis by the Sunlight Foundation shows that over the past 18 months, one Charlotte station alone -- WBTV Channel 3 -- has sold 4,086 ads for $3.8 million.

With control of the Senate in play, outside spending is concentrated on races with vulnerable Senate incumbents -- with one notable exception.

The race for an open House seat in Florida between Democrat Alex Sink and Republican David Jolly has attracted $9 million in ads sponsored by outside groups.

Yet spending by those groups, including those run by the Koch Brothers or George Soros, are dwarfed by the money political parties will spend running ads independently of candidates.

The Republican National Committee has already spent $122 million and the Democratic National Committee has spent $112 million.

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