Five-fold upsurge: Super PACs, dark money groups spending far more than in 2012 cycle at same point in campaign, Center for Reponsive Politics

By Robert Maguire and Will Tucker

September 21, 2015

Political organizations working to influence the 2016 elections outside the party or official campaign structure had spent more than $25.1 million as of Sept. 21. That’s an increase of more than 34 percent over their counterparts at this point in the 2014 midterm elections — and a five-fold leap over their outlays by this date in the last presidential cycle, a Center for Responsive Politics review of Federal Election Commission data shows.​

If any type of group is in vogue, it’s the “single-candidate” committee, according to FEC data, and that means a boon for conservative groups in terms of sheer spending power. Of the 40 organizations that have spent the most so far in the 2016 cycle — a list that includes political nonprofits, super PACs and business associations — more than half are dedicated to one candidate and one race. The same is true of the top 20 biggest spenders, which includes 11 single-candidate groups.

The rise of single-candidate operations gives conservative organizations an edge in a presidential race marked by a large crop of Republican presidential candidates. Of the 20 biggest spenders, just one has a liberal viewpoint: the establishment-Democrat-backing Senate Majority PAC.

In 2013, back when single-candidate groups spent just under $2.7 million before September, 14 of the top 20 biggest spenders had supported liberal candidates or opposed conservative ones.

The super PAC supporting Chris Christie, America Leads, is at the head of the pack in terms of spending this time around, having laid out $4.7 million to support the New Jersey governor’s bid for the GOP nomination. Right to Rise, the super PAC that had raised more than any other as of mid-year — four times more than all super PACs combined at this point in 2012 — has reported spending $2 million to back Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida. But Right to Rise reportedly is shelling out a whopping $24 million for ads in Iowa and New Hampshire that began running last week; that money is just beginning to show up in FEC reports.

Democrats know how far they’re down, and essentially admitted to the FEC two weeks ago that though they deem some of Republicans’ tactics legally questionable, they’ll do the same if given the green light.

Meanwhile, as of mid-September 2015, groups with the single-candidate designation have spent $16.2 million. That’s more than 55 times as much as the 2012 generation spent at this point and outpaces 2014’s single-candidate super PACs by $14 million. Single candidate groups would go on to spend $269 million by the end of the 2012 cycle, and $62.6 million in 2014.

Having yet to spend even 6 percent of what they have reported raising, single-candidate groups have cash stockpiled for ad buys, voter calls and mailers, regardless of the course Democrats choose.

“Dark money” advantages
Republican advantages may go beyond sheer numbers. In “America Next,” Gov. Bobby Jindal (R-La.) has the backing of the first single-candidate “dark money” group to report spending to FEC this cycle. This 501(c)(4) social welfare organization, which can accept unlimited donations without revealing donors’ names, is one of several functioning almost as de facto arms of the campaigns themselves, continuing a trend that began only in 2014.

While Democrats, including Hillary Clinton, have single-candidate super PACs providing them big-money firepower this cycle from sources that are disclosed to the public, they have not yet taken the step of incorporating single-candidate dark money organizations into the mix. That’s not to say that liberal dark money groups are entirely silent: Planned Parenthood has reported spending $74,057 attacking Clinton’s opponents.

America Next has already helped Jindal in a least a couple of ways: The group bought $340,537 in television ads explicitly supporting Jindal’s candidacy for president after months of paying Jindal’s travel bills as he jetted around the country giving policy speeches before declaring himself a candidate.

Most of the Republican candidates, like Jindal, are backed by politically active nonprofits set up to provide donors an anonymous avenue to support a candidate, and some — in particular the pro-Rubio Conservative Solutions Project — have spent heavily on ads supporting their candidate. By framing its support for Rubio as issue ads, though, Conservative Solutions has avoided having to report that spending to the FEC.

But for some of the multi-candidate “dark money” groups, even their FEC-reported spending is higher than in 2014. Americans for Prosperity, for example, never reported spending to the FEC before May of an election year. But as of Sept. 21, more than a full year before the 2016 election, the group has spent $1.6 million, according to its reports to the agency, making it the fifth-highest-ranking outside spending group so far this cycle.

By early September 2014 — just two months before the midterm elections — AFP, known for taking advantage of loopholes in the reporting rules, had already run more than 30,000 ads in states with contentious Senate races, according to data from the Wesleyan Media Project, yet it had only reported two expenditures totaling $409,225 to the FEC.

Organizations that do not disclose their donors have already reported spending more than $4.6 million this cycle — up from $2 million at this point in 2014 and just $313,505 at this point in 2012. Overall, expenditures by nondisclosing dark money groups makes up nearly 20 percent of all reported outside spending so far in 2016, not including spending by the parties. That’s up considerably from less than 7 percent at this point in 2012.

Hot races for outside spenders
Both the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Americans for Prosperity have spent money attacking former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland, who is running for Senate, but the Chamber has been running explicit vote-for or vote-against ads in several other races as well.

The Chamber has reported spending during the odd-numbered years in the last three cycles, but the totals have exploded: from $30,000 and $100,000 over the full years of 2009 and 2011 to $949,401 in all of 2013. Now, less than three-quarters of the way into 2015, the Chamber’s reported outlays come to $3 million.

Meanwhile, among super PACs, it’s Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) — deemed by both parties to be vulnerable in a presidential election year in a light-blue state — who’s at the center of a battle already underway. The Democrats’ Senate Majority PAC spent nearly $600,000 against Ayotte through Sept. 14. The Republican-backing ESA Fund, formerly Ending Spending Action Fund, countered with nearly $500,000 to prop up Ayotte. Spending there, as elsewhere, will surely increase.

It’s clear from the data that spending has ratcheted up at a pace not seen in previous cycles — but the cycle is still very young. Around this time in the 2014 midterms, for example, CRP reported that liberal dark money groups were dominating; by the time the cycle was over, though, the ideological pendulum had swung waaaay back to the right.