Jessica Hill / AP

Outside spending puts Democratic midterm candidates in awkward spot

Left-leaning super PACs and nonprofits pour cash into campaigns, complicating any prospect of finance reform

From Connecticut to Florida, Pennsylvania to Michigan, money is pouring into statewide elections at an unprecedented rate.

Thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, which allowed corporations, unions, nonprofits and other associations to spend unlimited amounts on campaigns, funding from outside groups, some with undisclosed donors, is paying for a deluge of ads in competitive races.

While Democrats have led the charge against Citizens United, left-leaning outside groups appear to be spending an increasing amount of money supporting Democratic candidates.

The prospects of Democratic senatorial and gubernatorial candidates across the country are being affected by groups they can’t control and whose existence many of those Democrats fought against.

“The amount of money from outside groups just keeps growing, but I can’t say it’s surprising,” said Travis Ridout, a professor of public policy at Washington State University and co-director of the Wesleyan Media Project, which tracks ad spending. “It’s just easier to get money into the system now and easier for them to say whatever they want.”

The 2014 midterms may be the most expensive in U.S. history. Candidates and political action committees (PACs) have raised more than $1.3 billion so far, with experts like Ridout predicting it will eclipse the 2010 total of about $1.7 billion by the time elections are held.

Of that, nearly $360 million was raised by super PACs, outside groups that aren’t allowed to coordinate or directly donate to political campaigns in most states but can spend an unlimited amount lobbying for or against candidates. Millions more have been raised by 501(c)(4)s, nonprofits that can donate up to half of their expenditures to political campaigns without revealing their backers.

And much of that super PAC and 501(c)(4) money is supporting Democratic candidates who fought allowing unlimited money into elections.

Across the country, the top-spending political nonprofit this year is the Senate Majority PAC, which has already spent $32 million funding Democratic Senate candidates in tight races. San Francisco–based billionaire and environmentalist Tom Steyer, media magnate Fred Eychaner and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg are some of its main supporters.

That has put Democrats against the surge in outside spending in an awkward spot. As long as the decision stands, Democrats and Republicans alike will be affected by outside spending. Every Democrat and independent that caucuses with Democrats in the Senate voted on an amendment that would overturn Citizens United last month, but Republican senators blocked it.

“Both parties are now benefiting from the campaign finance system, but that doesn’t mean they like it,” said Erika Franklin Fowler, a professor of government at Wesleyan University who also heads the Wesleyan Media Project. “But you have to play by the rules of the game if you want to stay competitive.”

Connecticut provides a striking example of how candidates’ desire for finance reform has been thwarted by Citizens United.

In 2005 the state passed a campaign finance reform law that allowed state candidates to forgo the arduous process of fundraising and instead finance their campaigns with money provided by the state. In 2010 after a poll of Connecticut residents showed the vast majority supported the law, Gov. Dannel Malloy praised the merits of campaign finance reform.

"This poll should serve as proof of just how strongly Connecticut voters feel about campaign finance reform and as a warning for those candidates who think they can … try and buy a nomination,” he said.

This year, Malloy and his Republican opponent, Tom Foley, pledged once again to publicly finance their campaigns.

But in addition to the $6.5 million each gubernatorial candidate received from the state, millions of dollars are being poured into the election from outside groups. The two main groups are a super PAC that reportedly has ties to Foley, Grow Connecticut, and Connecticut Forward, which is mainly funded by the Democratic Governors Association. Both super PACs are inundating the airwaves with negative ads. Grow Connecticut has amassed $5.8 million so far, and Connecticut Forward has raised $2.6 million, according to an analysis of IRS data by local newspaper The New Haven Register.

“Gov. Malloy has said that the Citizens United decision was a bad one and that the Supreme Court got it wrong,” said Ian Sams, a spokesman for the Connecticut Democratic Party in an email. “But the Supreme Court made its decision, so now folks in Connecticut — and across the country — are playing by the new rules of the game.”

Neither campaign responded to a request for comment.

Connecticut is far from the only state where outside financing has played a controversial role this year.

In Florida $52.2 million has been spent on television ads for Republican Gov. Rick Scott and his Democratic challenger, former Gov. Charlie Crist. Only 4 percent of that money is coming from the campaigns, according to an analysis by the Center for Public Integrity. Unlike other states, Florida super PACs are allowed to coordinate directly with candidates. That’s allowed both candidates to communicate with voters in ads paid for by groups like Let’s Get to Work, which is largely funded by the Republican Governors Association, and NextGen Climate Action, which is funded by Steyer.

So far more than $52 million has been spent on TV ads in Florida, more than in any other state, according to the Center for Public Integrity.

In Michigan, Democratic Senate candidate Gary Peters has called for the overturn of Citizens United, but less than 20 percent of the TV advertising supporting him has come from his campaign this year, according to public broadcaster documents. Republican challenger Terri Lynn Land's campaign has made up 28 percent of her ad spending, according to the Michigan Campaign Finance Network. Neither campaign responded to a request for comment.

The outside money flowing to Peters’ campaign has been used on attack ads against Land and for a get-out-the-vote effort to raise awareness about Peters. Those efforts may be working, as Peters has pulled ahead of Land in recent polls. Neither campaign returned a request for comment.

Franklin Fowler said the outside cash flow is also changing the entire tone of campaigns, as increasing amounts of outside cash get spent on negative ads.

“Citizens don’t like negativity as a general rule, so candidates suffer backlash when they use negative ads,” she said. “But if you take the exact same ad and change the ‘paid for by’ line, people tend to like it more. Interest groups [airing negative ads] work better, because interest groups don’t suffer the backlash.”

“It’s party line — Democrats want change, and Republicans don’t,” said Craig Holman, the government affairs lobbyist for campaign finance reform at Public Citizen, a think tank based in Washington, D.C. “So it’s hypocrisy that they’d tap into this avenue of illegitimate financing. But they defend their actions, saying they’re not going to self-disarm.”

There is, however, at least one example of candidates deflecting the influence of outside money since Citizens United: In the 2012 midterm elections, Scott Brown, who was then a Massachusetts senator and is currently running for a Senate seat in New Hampshire, and current Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren signed a pledge to donate money to nonprofits of their choice every time an outside group spent money on their campaign. The move worked: Outside groups played a very minor role in the race. But this year, Brown has declined to sign a similar promise.

Brown’s campaign — along with the Democratic National Committee and Republican National Committee — did not respond to requests for comment.

Holman says it's not realistic to expect something like that to happen nationwide.

“The forecasting models are suggesting Republicans will take over, so in that situation, parties do whatever they can to stay up,” said Franklin Fowler.

The only hope for campaign finance reform at this point, according to Holman, is if voters vote in Democratic supermajorities that will overturn Citizens United.

“However the voters end up voting, that’s going to decide the fate of reform,” he said.

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