By Ian Karbal, Open Secrets

August 13, 2020

Three months before the November election, outside spending in federal races has already crossed the $500 million line. It’s the most outside spending by this point in any election except 2016, which saw $565 million. Ultimately, outside groups spent a record-breaking $1.7 billion that cycle. With super PACs that are closely tied to President Donald Trump and presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden flooding the airwaves and internet with ads, spending on the presidential race makes up 40 percent of all federal outside spending.

Regulations on outside groups — primarily super PACs and politically active nonprofits — are less stringent than those for candidate campaigns or traditional PACs. These groups may accept unlimited amounts of money from individuals, corporations and unions, while spending unlimited amounts independent of candidates or political parties. Although super PACs are required to disclose their donors, politically active nonprofits, are not. Therefore, donors may shield contributions by giving through shell companies or nonprofits that then donate to super PACs.

This cycle so far, 4 percent of outside money spent came from groups that don’t disclose any donors. These are politically active nonprofits such as 501(c)(4)s and 501(c)(6)s, or super PACs funded entirely by nonprofits. Another 39 percent came from groups that only partially disclose funds, meaning a significant chunk of their money comes from an untraceable organization, like shell corporations or nonprofits.

Disclosure Levels by Cycle

Roughly 52 percent of outside spending in the 2020 election cycle comes from groups that fully disclose their donors. The percentage of spending by groups that only partially disclose their sources of funding is at an all-time high, while “dark money” is down.

2020 marks the second cycle in a row that liberal outside groups are spending more than conservative groups. Until the 2018 midterms, conservative spending topped that of liberal groups in every election cycle since the 2010 Citizens United ruling. Liberal groups have also spent more non-disclosed money than conservative groups this cycle, accounting for $13.6 million of the $20.8 million spent by non-disclosing groups. The numbers represent a potential schism with the Democratic platform, which has long called for campaign finance reform, including the elimination or restriction of “dark money.”

Democrats’ first bill after retaking a House majority in the 116th Congress proposed several major campaign finance reforms, including requiring politically active nonprofits to disclose their donors. The Democratic bill passed the house along party lines and was not brought forward in the Senate. The largest outside spender this cycle at $44 million is Priorities USA Action, a liberal hybrid PAC that partially discloses its donors. The group received over $6 million this cycle from an associated nonprofit, Priorities USA, and $3.5 million from the liberal nonprofit Sixteen Thirty Fund which also doesn’t disclose its donors. Almost all of the group’s spending went to messaging around the presidential election, either attacking Trump or supporting Biden. The rest of their spending has gone toward spending in tight Senate races, notably attacking Sens. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine), both of whom hold seats that Democrats are keen to flip in November.

The group has spent big on television and online ads, most attacking Trump on a number of fronts in key states. Ads have highlighted his mishandling of the COVID-19 outbreak, the resulting economic crisis, his response to racial justice protests and his perceived authoritarian tendencies. One such ad, depicting police violence towards protesters, has been banned by multiple tech companies for its “shocking and disturbing content,” according to a statement Google made to the Washington Post.

Trailing Priorities USA is America First Action, a pro-Trump super PAC with the president’s own stamp of approval. The group has spent $31 million, exclusively on the presidential race. In April, the group made its first ad buys, spending $10 million on broadcast ads and mailers in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin attacking Biden. Many of the television spots assailed Biden for being weak on China. Since then, the group has stepped up their spending, announcing plans for major ad reservations for the fall in Florida and North Carolina. Last month the group began another $23 million campaign against Biden in key battleground states.

America First Action has been accused of taking foreign money, as well as unlawfully coordinating with the Trump campaign. Super PACs are prohibited from coordinating with the candidate they’re supporting, but many of these groups abuse loopholes in election law to do so. A significant amount of the super PAC’s money, $949,000, came from a sister nonprofit dark money group, America First Policies. This week, The Daily Beast reported that the group was also running a self-described “conservative news platform” called the American Herald, formed this cycle. The site appears like a traditional news site, and the Trump campaign has promoted its stories without disclosing the connection.

America First Action may face trouble this year with one of their largest 2018 donors. Politico reported that Trump recently chastised one of the group’s main funders, Republican megadonor Sheldon Adelson, for not spending more to help his reelection. Adelson was the top individual contributor of the 2018 cycle, with he and his wife Miriam giving $122 million to Republican candidates and groups, including $10 million to America First Action. But he has not yet donated to the pro-Trump group this cycle.

Top Outside Spending Groups

Priorities USA Action
National Republican Senatorial Committee
Republican Senatorial Committee
America First Action
Senate Majority PAC
American Bridge 21st Century
Unite the Country
Club for Growth
Persist PAC
The Lincoln Project

While most of the top groups have been big spenders for several cycles or longer, including Democratic Senate Majority PAC or conservative Club for Growth, there are several newcomers. These include the liberal groups Unite the Country, a pro-Biden, anti-Trump super PAC, Persist PAC created to support Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) in her presidential run; and the Lincoln Project, which has drawn national attention for its anti-Trump advertising that often goes viral. The Lincoln Project is run by George Conway, the conservative, never-Trump husband of Trump’s counselor and spokesperson, Kellyanne Conway.

A majority of spending this cycle, over 61 percent, came from super PACs. Just 4 percent of outside spending has been made by nonprofits directly, though millions more have flowed from those groups to super PACs. The presidential race has seen the most outside spending, with $239 million spent for or against Trump, Biden and other Democratic candidates during the primary. Senate races have drawn $172 million and $97 million has gone to influencing House races. The split is similar to the last presidential election year in 2016.