Super PACs aligned with House and Senate Democrats and Republicans more than quadrupled their total fundraising in the 2018 midterms compared to four years ago, a sign that campaign money and power is amassing at big outside groups that face fewer transparency rules and can be difficult for party leaders to oversee.
Meanwhile, fundraising at party committees such as the National Republican Congressional Committee and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee was roughly stagnant from the 2014 midterms to 2018, and three of the four congressional committees were outraised by their corresponding super PACs, disclosures with the Federal Election Commission showed Thursday.
Democrats credit the surge in outside money with helping them take back the House of Representatives and minimize losses in the Senate. And on both sides of the aisle, the extra cash has allowed super PACs to experiment with get-out-the-vote operations and other campaign tactics.
But the super PAC explosion has also allowed the groups to spend more money in races without timely disclosures to voters about what they’re doing. And some political insiders are concerned that the officially sanctioned super PACs could wind up fighting over funding with big-money groups that are not under party control or with scammers who raise money in the name of politics but largely pocket it themselves.
“All it takes is one billionaire. Look at what Mayor Bloomberg did in the closing weeks of the election: He put all these seats in play because they dumped this money in late,” said Ian Russell, a former national political director for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “The door is open for those who know less, or are less scrupulous, to make mischief or abuse the situation.”
Three of the major super PACs — Congressional Leadership Fund for Republicans in the House, and Senate Majority PAC and House Majority PAC for Democrats — combined to raise $414 million in 2018, FEC disclosures showed, compared to $115 million in 2014.
A fourth super PAC that didn’t exist in 2014, Senate Republicans’ Senate Leadership Fund, reported raising $111 million in 2018, bringing the groups’ combined fundraising to more than four times what it was in the last midterm election cycle.
These outside groups, which are barred from coordinating directly with campaigns, are gaining influence, in part, because the party committees are subject to restrictions on how much money they can accept from individual donors, whereas super PACs are not.
Of the four party congressional committees, only the DCCC, which benefited from a surge in small-dollar donations on the left this year, significantly boosted its fundraising during the midterms, raising $246 million, $76 million more than it brought in four years ago. (The DCCC was also the only party committee to outraise its corresponding super PAC, House Majority PAC.)
Three of the party-affiliated super PACs undertook experiments in field organizing and get-out-the-vote efforts this cycle, wading into operations that traditionally had been helmed by other groups. The biggest was housed at Congressional Leadership Fund, which set up more than 30 offices in House districts to help Republicans protect their majority.
The field program dazzled GOP donors, and Congressional Leadership Fund was the biggest spender among the four party-aligned super PACs during the 2018 midterms. The group raised $156 million during the midterm elections, according to disclosures filed Thursday — $42 million more than its counterpart, the NRCC.
But Republicans lost more than three dozen House seats anyway.
The PAC’s executive director, Corry Bliss, told donors in a post-election memo obtained by POLITICO that Congressional Leadership Fund’s spending was valuable, saying the party might have lost “more than 50 seats” without it and citing several districts, such as Andy Barr’s victory in Kentucky, where Bliss said the PAC’s money made an impact. Dan Conston, who will lead the group next cycle, told the Washington Examiner this week that he plans to continue to the field program in 2020.
On both sides of the aisle, outside groups are trying to figure out how to justify their big budgets, said Karl Sandstrom, a former FEC commissioner.
“Super PACs are trying to figure out, with all their money, how do they not just waste it?” Sandstrom said. “It wasn’t that long ago you just measured everything with how many ratings points were you purchasing [on television]. But it’s become clear that there’s no business out there in which money is wasted more than in politics, primarily because people don’t know how to spend it effectively.”
Outside groups also have proven capable of avoiding some transparency rules candidates and party committees must follow. Super PACs in 2018 increasingly found new ways to delay disclosing their donors; Senate Majority PAC, for instance, didn’t reveal that it was behind $2.3 million in spending against Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) until more than a month after he won re-election.
Super PACs’ massive fundraising was bolstered by several wealthy donors who dropped millions of dollars into their coffers in the days leading up to the election, filings on Thursday showed. Hedge fund mogul James Simons donated $4 million to Democrats’ House Majority PAC, bringing his total contributions to the group to $10 million.
And the election’s biggest donors gave even more: Republicans Sheldon and Miriam Adelson gave $5 million to Congressional Leadership Fund in late October, disclosures showed, bringing their total contributions to the group to $55 million.
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine
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