TIME 2014 elections

Secretive Nonprofits Spent Millions on State Election Ads

Nonprofits spent nearly $25 million on ads, but who was behind the money is hard to say

Sandra Kennedy expected a tough race this fall for a seat on the Arizona Corporation Commission, but the Democrat didn’t expect to get socked with a $1.4 million onslaught of TV ads from a mysterious group that dredged up a past legal dispute.

The race for a seat on the commission to regulate utilities and other businesses rarely attracts campaign ads. Kennedy herself hadn’t purchased any. The group called Save Our Future Now, however, flooded the state’s airwaves with ads running nearly 1,400 times.

“Times are tough in Arizona, but Sandra Kennedy voted to hurt Arizona families. Kennedy voted for higher sales taxes, but she didn’t even pay her own bills,” one ad said. “Kennedy owned a restaurant chain and didn’t pay the rent.”

The ad referenced a royalty infringement suit involving Kennedy and restaurant chain Denny’s Inc. over a franchise that she and her husband owned. Both parties dismissed the case in 2010.

“It was devastating,” Kennedy said of the ads. “Unbelievable.”

State and federal law do not require the group to publicly disclose its funders because such politicking is not the group’s “primary purpose.” So it’s nearly impossible for Kennedy or other Arizonans to prove who funded the attack ads that helped lead to her loss in November. The group did not respond to the Center for Public Integrity for comment.

Save Our Future Now is just one of 40 nonprofit groups that together spent an estimated $25 million to buy TV ads about 2014 state-level elections while keeping their donors secret, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of data from media tracking service Kantar Media/CMAG.

That’s a small piece of the more than $850 million spent on TV ads in all state elections overall in the 2014 cycle. However, the number of ads from such groups — and the proportion they made up in political advertising for state contests — nearly doubled from levels in 2010, the last year in which a comparable number of state-level offices were in play.

Such groups often appeared to have outsized influence on races from governor down to state senator this cycle. Most of them were successful, far more so than independent political groups overall: these secretive nonprofits either backed a winning candidate or, in the majority of cases, bashed the loser in 62 percent of the races in which they sponsored TV ads tracked by Kantar Media/CMAG. By comparison, all independent groups, including those that disclose their donors, were successful just under 50 percent of the time.

And overall 51 percent of election advertisers, including candidates and political parties, on the state level were successful, according to the Center’s analysis.

Citizens United’s impact

In 24 states including Arizona — where nearly one out of every seven ads was sponsored by such entities — these mysterious groups were boosted by the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling. The high court’s 5-4 decision freed corporations and unions to spend limitlessly to directly advocate for the victory or defeat of candidates.

The ruling unleashed a wave of “social welfare” nonprofit corporations, which are supposed to spend the majority of the donations they receive to promote “social welfare,” not politics.

Attempts by the Internal Revenue Service to regulate these tax-exempt groups called 501(c)(4)s — and allegations that the agency targeted conservative groups with its audits — resulted in the 2013 resignation of Lois Lerner, the director of that portion of the IRS.

To be sure, such “social welfare” nonprofits are not the only groups that sometimes can keep their donors secret. Lax disclosure rules in some states allow other types of groups to avoid registering with state election boards at all.

Or sometimes groups can hide their donors from voters with lags in filing deadlines. In Kansas, a state where a tight governor’s race attracted more ads from such mysterious groups than in any other state, a different kind of nonprofit called Alliance for a Free Society Inc., ran ads against Democratic nominee Paul Davis, who lost to incumbent Republican Gov. Sam Brownback.

The group incorporated in Delaware only in July, so detailed information about its leadership, lobbying and political activity will not be released by the IRS until 2015 — months after Kansas voters saw the anti-Davis ads and cast ballots. Michael K. Morgan, a top government affairs consultant to Koch Industries who runs the group, declined to be interviewed by the Center on the record.

Some conservatives, including Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, have argued that keeping donors secret is constitutionally protected anonymous political speech.

These groups lend a “comfort level” to individual and corporate donors who want to influence state politics without giving up their identity, according to David Vance, a spokesman for the Campaign Legal Center, which advocates for tighter campaign finance regulation.

“The 501(c)(4)s and the 501(c)(6)s represent a way for anyone, but particularly corporations, to kind of fly under the radar and make an impact,” said Vance, referencing the sections of the Internal Revenue Code that regulate politically active nonprofits. “They can have a lot more impact at the state level than on the federal level.”

Cease and desist

In Wisconsin, where a competitive gubernatorial race helped attract more than $4 million dollars in ads from such politically active nonprofits, two groups spent more than $350,000 combined attacking Penny Bernard Schaber, a 61-year-old physical therapist and longtime Democratic assemblywoman running for state Senate.

The ads started early, just after Labor Day, and painted her as a tax-and-spend liberal. They claimed that she took a pay raise while raising taxes for others.

Bernard Schaber sent a cease-and-desist letter to local TV stations demanding that they stop airing the ads because they were “factually untrue.” A legislative committee had voted to raise legislators’ pay to $49,943 before she was elected; her pay never rose while she was in office.

But the groups countered that the Wisconsin State Journal newspaper first published the statements in an editorial, noting that some legislators had declined to accept the increase. The ads continued.

The two organizations that paid for the ads, which ran nearly 750 times, were theWisconsin Manufacturing and Commerce Issues Mobilization Council and the First Amendment Alliance Educational Fund.

Because the ads didn’t specifically advocate for Bernard Schaber’s defeat, the groups didn’t have to disclose what they had spent — or the source of their funding — to the state’s ethics board, which regulates campaign finance.

The Wisconsin Manufacturing and Commerce Issues Mobilization Council is a state-based group that is affiliated with the state chamber of commerce.

The First Amendment Alliance Educational Fund, though, is a Virginia-based group that ran ads within Wisconsin only on her race. It says on its website it is “dedicated to educating Americans on transparency, waste, fraud, hypocrisy and best practices at all levels of government.” Its donors, and its interest in Wisconsin state Senate District 19, are not transparent.

Representatives of both groups did not respond to the Center’s request for comment.

Bernard Schaber lost, largely she believes due to the campaigns by those groups. And those behind the attacks remain largely unknown.

“That’s what makes it hard for the general public. They don’t pay attention to who is saying it,” she said. “They pay attention to the message.”

Leaving no footprints

Groups can drop in from afar, and then essentially disappear as they did in some state supreme court races.

At least four mysterious groups targeted candidates for state judicial races — contests historically removed from political blood sport. Such secretive spending is especially concerning within the judicial community because donors could come before a judge whom their dollars helped elect.

In Arkansas, a group called the Law Enforcement Alliance of America spent more than $160,000 to air three ads aimed at influencing the nonpartisan race for state Supreme Court. Such third-party spending was unprecedented in an Arkansas Supreme Court election.

One ad claimed that candidate Tim Cullen had called child pornography a “victimless crime.”

Cullen wrote that phrase in a 2006 brief while representing a sex offender who was appealing his sentence. However, Cullen said he was referring to his client’s conviction for enticing a minor — not the child pornography charge mentioned in the ad — and that he characterized that crime as “victimless” because his client engaged in sexually explicit Internet chat-room conversations with undercover police officers pretending to be young girls.

Cullen has repeatedly said the ad’s claims were false, and at the time, his campaign countered with an ad that aimed to exonerate him. But by the time of the election in May, Cullen was outspent, and he blamed his 4-percentage-point loss to Robin Wynne on the LEAA’s ads.

The LEAA, a Virginia-based nonprofit, does not have to publicly reveal its donors, nor is it required to file campaign finance reports with the Arkansas secretary of state. In the past, the group has been backed by the National Rifle Association and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, though neither group has reported grants to the LEAA on recent years’ tax returns.

The LEAA has not made available its own tax returns from the past two years, keeping the public in the dark about the groups’ leadership and any of its recent donations to other organizations. Nor have representatives from the group responded to the Center’s repeated requests for comment.

Cullen said he was troubled by the attack and pointed to the conflicts of interest such secretive support could create for elected judges in state courts.

“We don’t know where the money came from, so we don’t know when to ask Justice Robin Wynne who his benefactors are,” he said.

Following the disclosure trail of crumbs

Though the groups don’t have to report their donors, sometimes clues can be gleaned from other public records.

Very often the donors to a nonprofit are other nonprofits, which are required to reveal their contributions. Or publicly traded corporations may voluntarily disclose donations in their corporate filings.

Ohio’s Supreme Court race attracted nearly $600,000 in TV ads from the ambiguously named Washington, D.C.-based American Freedom Builders. In one of the few positive ads aired by political nonprofits, the group supported Republican Justice Judi French’s successful re-election to Ohio’s high court.

Like the LEAA, little is known about who funds American Freedom Builders. However adocument released by Reynolds American earlier this year shows the tobacco giant donated $15,000 to the group in 2013, as the Center for Public Integrity has previouslyreported.

This debate has reached a fever pitch in Arizona, a breeding ground for some of the country’s most prolific political nonprofits. The secretary of state audited politically active nonprofits in July, including the group that attacked Kennedy in the corporation commission race, to make sure they met the state’s “social welfare” requirement as a nonprofit. Yet earlier this month, a federal judge threw out a provision in the state’s campaign finance law that required all other political committees to disclose their donors.

Kennedy believes the group that purchased the ads, Save Our Future Now, was financed by Arizona Public Service — the state’s largest electricity utility, which is regulated by the commission. She has advocated for solar energy tax incentives opposed by the utility.

The utility told the Center it supports candidates and causes that are “pro-business and supportive of a sustainable energy future for Arizona,” but the utility declined to disclose specific political contributions or answer questions about alleged ties to Save Our Future Now.

Kennedy, devastated by the Save Our Future Now attack ads, said she’s hesitant to run for office again. She’s stopped reading newspapers or watching television and said her consulting business has been hurt by the bad press. Politics has strained her family life, too. A classmate of Kennedy’s 16-year-old daughter bullied her about the group’s accusations, she said.

“I think it’s a deterrent for other good people who want to serve,” she said. “Why would I put myself and my family through it again?”

Rachel Baye, Kytja Weir and Ben Wieder contributed to this story.

TIME 2016 Election

Jeb Bush Isn’t Much Closer to Actually Running for President

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, speaks at an event at Illuminating Technologies Inc., in Greensboro, N.C. on Sept. 24, 2014.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, speaks at an event at Illuminating Technologies Inc., in Greensboro, N.C. on Sept. 24, 2014. Tom Williams—CQ-Roll Call

Legally speaking, nothing changed

When Jeb Bush announced Tuesday he is beginning to “actively explore the possibility of running” for the White House in 2016, it may have been the most forward statement on the subject of his Republican colleagues, but it doesn’t mean much.

First off, he’s been thinking thinking about doing this for a while, discussing the possibility both in public settings and in private meetings with donors. And the verbal imprecision aside—is there any other way to ‘explore’ other than ‘actively?’ The possibility of running?—Bush is taking advantage of a gray area in federal election law to go about “testing the waters” instead of establishing a formal “exploratory committee.” Besides keeping his fundraising and spending records private, this will allow Bush and his aides more time to coordinate with outside Republican groups who he’d be forced to be firewalled from should he formally announce.

Bush’s low-tech Facebook announcement wasn’t accompanied by a call to donate or even to sign up for his non-existent campaign website. Instead his statement was designed to placate increasingly jumpy donors wary of a likely 2016 candidacy by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and are under pressure to lend their support to an array of other likely Republican candidates. It also helps him avoid the appearance of playing hard-to-get with the GOP establishment that has been calling on him to swiftly make up his mind.

Indeed, while Bush has said the most, other 2016 candidates have done more in terms of looking to run for the presidency. Besides leadership PACs and political nonprofits, many of the senators and governors spent much of the past year on the road meeting donors, boosting local elected officials, and reaching out to potential campaign staffers.

Larry Noble, the former FEC general counsel and senior counsel at the Campaign Legal Center, says the whole idea of “testing the waters” was designed to be a private process, and there’s no way to tell which other potential 2016-ers may be doing it.

“What you received and spent was never reported if you decided not to run, so there wouldn’t be any embarrassment” he said. In Bush’s case, fundraising will certainly not be an issue, but operating under the radar is a key benefit. Instead of filing monthly reports, he will be required to report his donations and spending only once he decides to run.

Bush said in January he will form a federal Leadership PAC “to support leaders, ideas and policies that will expand opportunity and prosperity for all Americans.” While Bush could fly around the country to support local candidates in Iowa, New Hampshire, and other early states (a practice other Leadership-PAC holders like Sens. Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, and Ted Cruz put to use heavily in 2014) he couldn’t spend more than $5,000 on his presidential flirtations, or else run afoul of federal election law.

TIME Campaign Finance

Charities Risked Tax-Exempt Status With Political Ads

Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., takes her seat for the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee hearing on "The Semiannual Monetary Policy Report to the Congress" with Federal Reserve Board Chairwoman Janet Yellen on July 15, 2014.
Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., takes her seat for the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee hearing on "The Semiannual Monetary Policy Report to the Congress" with Federal Reserve Board Chairwoman Janet Yellen on July 15, 2014. Bill Clark—CQ Roll Call/Getty Images

The Internal Revenue Service prohibits charities from getting mixed up in politics, and those that do risk losing their tax exemption. Despite the threat, a handful of groups in the 2014 midterm elections paid for ads that appeared to be campaign-related.

The Natural Resources Defense Council, for example, is known as a 501(c)(3) organization, meaning it pays no income taxes and donations to the group are tax deductible. It is organized the same way as a charity, a hospital or university.

Despite the risk, the NRDC lambasted North Carolina Republican state Sen. Bill Cook in a $700,000 ad campaign this spring. The nonprofit paid for eight different ads that aired more than 2,600 times from mid-April through mid-July, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of data from media tracking firm Kantar Media/CMAG.

One ad opens with video of trash being emptied into a landfill, then turns to a shot of Cook.

“State Sen. Bill Cook voted for a bill that would encourage New York, New Jersey and other states to dump their trash in North Carolina,” the voiceover says. “Tell Bill Cook attracting New York trash doesn’t pass the smell test.”

The NRDC, whose mission is to promote environmentally friendly policies, said the ads had nothing to do with the Cook’s re-election campaign. If the ads had been, the organization could face a fine or lose its tax-exempt status as a charity.

Politics ‘absolutely prohibited’

The IRS says 501(c)(3) groups are “absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office.”

Despite the restrictions, the NRDC and a few other charities chose to navigate the complicated web of IRS rules to air ads that criticized or supported politicians running for election in November.

In addition to the ads targeting Cook, the NRDC partnered with the Southern Environmental Law Center and seven other charities under the name North Carolina Environmental Partnership to air ads criticizing four other state senators and four state representatives. All told, the partnership’s 20 ads — the majority of which were about the lawmakers’ support of fracking — ran more than 5,100 times from late March through mid-July and cost the groups an estimated $1.7 million to air, according to Kantar Media/CMAG.

The ads aired both before and after the state’s primary election, but disappeared months before the general. None of the candidates had primary opponents.

Rob Perks, the campaign manager for NRDC’s North Carolina efforts, offered that as proof that the ads weren’t intended to influence the election.

“We were incredibly careful,” Perks said. “During primary season, we only chose subjects of the ads to be people who ran unopposed in primaries or had no primaries of their own so that we wouldn’t run afoul of any electioneering activity.”

The goal of the ads, representatives for both the NRDC and the Southern Environmental Law Center said, was to help North Carolinians hold legislators accountable.

“We definitely were not intending to ask people to do anything at the polls, and some of the ads were about folks that were unopposed so wouldn’t even show up on a ballot,” said Mary Maclean Asbill, attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center.

Of the lawmakers targeted — all Republicans — two state representatives lost their seats in November, one representative and one senator were unopposed, and the others, including Cook, won re-election despite the ads.

Cook, who faced former state Sen. Stan White, a Democrat Cook unseated in 2012, told the Center in an email that the voters’ actions confirmed his feelings that the ads were “completely false and ineffective.” He did not answer additional questions.

Nonprofit backed Hagan

Also in North Carolina, the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, another charitable nonprofit aimed at protecting the environment, spent an estimated $500,000 airing an ad that expressed support for U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan, a Democrat who lost her seat in November.

“Who’s behind the attacks on Kay Hagan? Oil industry billionaires, that’s who,” the ad intones. “They want to undermine the air safety standards that protect us, and Sen. Kay Hagan is working to stop them.”

The ad aired roughly 1,450 times between March 24 and April 13, a few weeks before the primary when Hagan faced two other Democrats, both considered longshots.

Apparently adhering to a federal law that regulates “electioneering” communications, the group filed a report with the Federal Election Commission disclosing the spending because the last week of the ad’s run was less than a month before North Carolina’s primary election, Yet the group still maintains the ad wasn’t political.

“The ad never endorsed her as a candidate,” said the group’s executive director, Stephen Smith. “For all practical purposes, Kay Hagan had no candidate opposing her in that, so it was not at all meant to influence any election.”

Larry Noble, former FEC general counsel, said the ads aired by all the groups fall into a legal gray area but come dangerously close to crossing the line into election politics.

“They’re on a spectrum,” said Noble, who is now an attorney at the Campaign Legal Center, which advocates for tighter campaign finance regulation. “It’s a question in part of whether they’re focused on a person or whether they’re focused on an issue.”

Another ad that appeared to test the limits was produced by the nonprofitChange Agent Consortium. It aired in Michigan touting a September rally about Detroit’s bankruptcy amid Republican Gov. Rick Snyder’s ultimately successful re-election bid.

“When Gov. Snyder suspended home rule 18 months ago, he and his co-conspirators promised better jobs, safer neighborhoods and improved city services. Instead crime is up, our school system is under attack and our water’s shut off,” Change Agent Consortium founder the Rev. David Alexander Bullock says in the ad. “Join me Monday, Sept. 29, at 6 p.m. at Hart Plaza and say, ‘No,’ to Gov. Snyder’s takeover of Detroit.”

While the event may have been educational, the language used borders on telling people explicitly to vote against the Republican governor, Noble said after watching the ad.

But Bullock said the ad was not about the November election.

“We did not mention [Democratic gubernatorial candidate] Mark Schauer. We did not tell people to vote for Mark Schauer,” he said. “We didn’t even tell people, ‘Don’t vote for Snyder.’”

Political or not?

In examining ads by charitable nonprofits, the IRS looks for references to a candidate — whether by name or not — and positions on “wedge” issues that are expected to turn the tide of a race, said Marcus Owens, an attorney at the Washington firm Caplin & Drysdale who previously oversaw the IRS division that regulates charities.

His firm represents the NRDC, so he declined to comment specifically on any of the ads in this story.

The IRS also considers a variety of contextual details, such as the timing of the message and whether it is consistent with the charity’s overarching mission, he said.

Unlike the FEC, which requires groups to report ads that name candidates within a certain window before an election, the IRS does not rely on specific time frames to determine whether an ad influences an election.

“When someone has been identified as a candidate and that person begins making campaign-style presentations, identifies a position on the issues, that person is a candidate under federal tax law, and so the campaign has begun,” Owens said.

Still, the likelihood that a charity would actually lose its tax-exempt status over a few political ads is pretty slim, said Brett Kappel, an attorney with the Washington firm Arent Fox. Someone could file a complaint with the IRS, but the investigators there are unlikely to jump to action.

“They’re so afraid of their shadow right now — you know, because of congressional oversight — they’ll put it on the pile and say, ‘Yep, we’ll get to that in 2018, 2019, somewhere around there,’” he said.

TIME 2014 Election

Louisiana Senate Runoff Leads to Last-Minute Donations

U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA) speaks during a press conference to urge Congress to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act, on Capitol Hill on April 1, 2014 in Washington, DC.
U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA) speaks during a press conference to urge Congress to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act, on Capitol Hill on April 1, 2014 in Washington, DC. Allison Shelley—Getty Images

Oil and gas industry among the big donors

The defeat of the Keystone XL pipeline bill in the Senate last month may have been viewed as a blow to Sen. Mary Landrieu‘s re-election bid, but her battle to get the bill passed was warmly received by members of the oil and gas industry, including Keystone’s parent company.

And not only have corporate PACs, top executives and lobbyists in the industry stepped up with large checks for the embattled Landrieu’s campaign in recent days, but so have many of her fellow Democrats, including a number of liberal New England senators who voted against the legislation.

It will be weeks before there’s a final tally of all the contributions to Landrieu and Republican Rep. Bill Cassidy, who face each other in a runoff this Saturday (Dec. 6). But each campaign has filed several lengthy reports listing hundreds of donors in recent days. From Oct. 16 to Nov. 16, according to filings made today, Cassidy raised $2.1 million to Landrieu’s $1.5 million. Landrieu raised money quickly in the wake of the Nov. 18 Keystone vote, bringing in at least $807,900 since the day before the vote, but Cassidy gained and has raised at least $983,000 in the same time frame.

Landrieu’s last-minute drive for support has relied mainly on wealthy individuals from Louisiana — along with a smattering of New York high-society donors — and strong backing from oil companies and liberal Democratic politicians. Cassidy, on the other hand, picked up large checks only from a handful of ideologically driven PACs and reliable out-of-state partisan individuals until the last few days, when he disclosed receiving a flood of money from GOP establishment figures, like soon-to-be Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), and some prominent brand name corporate PACs, like Aetna,American Airlines and Blue Cross/Blue Shield.

While full data on fundraising and spending by each campaign is only available through Nov. 16, FEC rules require that during the period within 20 days of an election, candidates report any donations of $1,000 or more within 48 hours of receiving them.

Landrieu’s Backers

The Nov. 18 Senate vote on a bill to approve the controversial Keystone project featured Landrieu front and center. Despite opposition elsewhere, the pipeline is popular in Louisiana, where oil and gas is a major industry and employer. The bill failed, and many pundits portrayed it as a defeat for Landrieu in her bid for re-election. But several big names in the oil and gas world seemed grateful.

According to filings made late last month, on the day before the vote, BP‘s corporate PAC gave Landrieu’s campaign $5,000. On Nov. 18, Martin Durbin, president of trade group America’s Natural Gas Alliance, personally gave her campaign $1,000, and the group’s PAC followed up with $5,000 more. Two days after the vote failed, the American Petroleum Institute‘s PAC contributed $5,000, as did ConocoPhilips‘ corporate PAC. The corporate PAC of Chevron, a company known for its conservative political leanings, and the PAC of natural gas giant Sempra also contributed following the vote, as did the Interstate Natural Gas Association. TransCanada, the parent company of the KeystoneXL project,reported giving Landrieu $2,500 on Nov. 24.

Landrieu has also received hundreds of thousands of dollars from other corporate PACs that represent major interests in Washington, particularly in natural resources and energy: American Electric Power, Exelon, Freeport-McMoran and Edison Electric.

Many of these companies tend to shy away from giving to Democratic candidates, and an endangered one in a race that conventional wisdom says may already be lost wouldn’t seem to be a great bet. The American Petroleum Institute’s PAC has given 85 percent of its money to Republicans this cycle; Chevron’s PAC has given 84 percent of its contributions to GOP candidates; and Freeport McMoran’s PAC has given 68 percent of its money to Republicans.

Adding to the unusual nature of Landrieu’s fundraising is the fact that at the same time oil and gas companies were shoveling money into her campaign, many of her Democratic Senate colleagues were voting down the very bill those companies supported — and then apparently leaving the floor to write large checks to support her.

In the days after the Keystone vote, Landrieu collected checks from the leadership PACs of Sens. Patrick Leahy (Vt.),Jeanne Shaheen (N.H.), Sheldon Whitehouse (R.I), Richard Blumenthal (Conn.), Chris Murphy (Conn.), Maria Cantwell(Wash.), Barbara Mikulski (Md.), Debbie Stabenow (Mich.) and others — all Democrats who voted against the pipeline.

Most of Landrieu’s individual donations come from Louisiana addresses, with the notable exception of several dozen large checks from people in a very small geographic area of Manhattan — specifically the tony Upper East Side. Those society-name donors include William Lauder and heiresses Kate Whitney and Agnes Gund (who listed her occupation as “philanthropist”); their gifts may be linked to a fundraiser hosted by Hillary Clinton for Landrieu in New York shortly before Thanksgiving.

Cassidy’s Strong Finish

While Landrieu was raking in big checks from oil and gas companies as the Keystone bill went down in flames, Cassidy’s fundraising seemed stagnant. In a filing submitted on Nov. 19, covering the days just around the vote, Cassidy reported raising just $67,500 from large donors — compared to Landrieu’s filing on Nov. 20 listing $179,400. At that time, most of Cassidy’s donors were individuals and from out-of-state. In fact, his Nov. 19 filing is dominated by members of the DeVos clan — the conservative Michigan family led by Richard Devos, the founder of Amway. Richard Devos, his son Dick Devos and seven other members of the family each gave Cassidy checks for the maximum $2,600 for the runoff.

In contrast to Landrieu’s flood of support from her Senate colleagues, the only congressional leadership PAC giving to Cassidy then was the one sponsored by Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska). The next filing, on Nov. 21, was similarly lackluster, showing just $99,400 in large donations.

But Cassidy’s efforts got a sudden boost that showed up in his Nov. 24 report listing $254,900 in large contributions. The impetus may have been a donation from McConnell’s leadership PAC. Whatever led to the sudden outpouring of mainstream support for Cassidy, it was a turnabout.

In that filing, Cassidy reported donations from major corporate PACs like Aetna, Altria, American Airlines, Blue Cross Blue Shield, Devon Energy and Caterpillar. He also picked up donations from the corporate PAC of Oxbow Carbon — the company led by the “other” Koch brother, Bill Koch, who also donated personally. Additionally, Cassidy logged checks from GOP Sens. Pat Toomey (Pa.) and Mark Kirk (Ill.)

The flood of donations increased with two even larger filings made on Dec. 1, covering the days around Thanksgiving. Donors listed in those documents include more big corporate PACs, such as those of America’s Health Insurance Plans andHumana, as well as much more leadership PAC cash from the likes of Sens. Richard Shelby (Ala.) and Chuck Grassley(Iowa).

Saturday’s vote will finally decide how large the Republicans’ majority will be as they take control of the Senate in January — 53 votes or 54.

TIME 2016 Election

Republican Party Boss: We’ve Got To Be “Just About Perfect” To Win In 2016

Reince Priebus, Chairman of the Republican National Committee, participates on a panel at the Conservative Political Action Conference at the Gaylord National at National Harbor, Md.
Reince Priebus, Chairman of the Republican National Committee, participates on a panel at the Conservative Political Action Conference at the Gaylord National at National Harbor, Md., March 8, 2014. Ron Sachs—CNP/AdMedia/Corbis

A warning to his own party after a winning election about the coming challenge

Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said the GOP’s victories Tuesday amounted to the “tsunami” he predicted months ago, but predicted a tough road ahead for the GOP if it hopes to win the White House in 2016.

Speaking to reporters at a breakfast organized by the Christian Science Monitor, Priebus said the election amounted to more than just a rejection of unpopular President Barack Obama. “It was also the acceptance of conservative Republican leadership across the board,” he said triumphantly.

Under Priebus’ leadership, the GOP has made historic gains to its data and field programs buoyed by record party fundraising, but he said the bar will be even higher in 2016, when the electorate will be more favorable to Democrats. “I think we’re going to have to be about perfect,” he said.

Priebus, who has served as chairman for four years, said he would likely run for another two-year term to helm the party in January.

“I think we’ve got a long way to go to be ready for 2016,” he said. “Granted, we are excited and proud of where we’ve come, but I think we’ve got to be about perfect as a national party to win a national cultural vote in this country. I think the Democrats can be good and win, but we have to be great.”

Priebus acknowledged that many in the party are “tired and tapped out” after the expensive midterm race, but said he is confident that the party’s donors will realize they need to keep their checkbooks open. “They’re going to double down on our program because they know that investing in mechanics is the way that we’re going to be able to win in 2016,” he said.

“I think that our early vote program has to decisively beat the Democrats,” he said. “No nominee is going to have $100 million for a data platform, and no nominee is going to have a yearlong field operation. It’s going to take the RNC to fill that void, and it’s going to be expensive.”

Priebus said the GOP is not pulling out any staffers from presidential battleground states, a change from previous elections. “We’re going to have to be three times bigger than we were in 2014,” he said. “I think it’s going to take a massive amount of money and a huge paid program in the battleground states starting immediately.”

In an effort to keep the party as ‘about perfect’ as possible, Priebus indicated he is willing to take an active role in the upcoming GOP primary process to keep the discourse civil and focused on winning the White House. The RNC has already taken steps to compress the primary calendar and has taken control of the debate process to cut down on the number of intra-party battles after the 2012 cycle.

“I think that there is a very strong feeling among the grassroots and among many of our donors that aren’t going to put up with Republicans slicing each other apart,” he said. “I think there’s going to be a high level of disdain for candidates who spend their time trying to destroy other Republicans.”

“I will be less concerned about my own reputation and refraining from being vocal,” Priebus added, “with candidates that go out of their way to simply just kill each other.”

Priebus highlighted Republican successes in 2014 at reaching out to minority voters, noting the GOP won nationally among Asian-American voters, saying the party will be doubling down on those efforts for 2016.

But Priebus had a stern warning for Obama on immigration reform, calling Obama’s promised executive actions “a nuclear threat” that amounts to “throwing kerosene on the fire.” “What essentially he is telling the American people is that he doesn’t give a darn about Republicans and Democrats working together,” he added, echoing recent comments by Speaker of the House John Boehner and likely Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

He added that, as party chairman, he remains opposed to marijuana legalization efforts. “As far as marijuana is concerned, I’m opposed to that,” he said.

He also took a shot at the likely Democratic nominee for President in 2016. “I sure as heck hope we’re running against Hillary Clinton,” he said. “What you just saw on Tuesday night was about as flat of a performance as you could have ever seen from the Democratic Party’s brightest star.”

 

TIME 2014 Election

Outside Spending Propelled Governors to Wins

Florida Rep. Gov. Rick Scott gives his victory speech Nov. 4, 2014 in Bonita Springs, Florida.
Florida Rep. Gov. Rick Scott gives his victory speech Nov. 4, 2014 in Bonita Springs, Florida. Erik Kellar—Getty Images

Outside groups spent around $142 million on governors' races

Nearly all of the governors elected Tuesday dominated the airwaves in TV ads before voters went to the polls, bolstered by their campaign war chests and outside groups that advertised on their behalf.

Candidates outspent on TV ads won in only seven of the 32 races called as of early Wednesday. However, in six of those cases, the winners were incumbents, confident that they didn’t need the help of so many ads.

Of the nearly $550 million spent on ads targeting governors on the November ballot, more than 55 percent supported the winning candidates, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of preliminary data from media tracking firm Kantar Media/CMAG.

The spending also helped Republicans pick up four governorships, while Democrats flipped only one, leaving Republicans holding the reins in at least 30 states nationwide.

The country’s 36 governors’ races accounted for nearly 70 percent of the $832 million spent on television ads aimed at shaping the outcomes of state-level races this cycle, about $100 million more than was spent on the same number of U.S. Senate seats up for election. Only the Wyoming governorship did not have ads airing in markets captured by Kantar Media/CMAG.

The spending this cycle represents a 10 percent decline from 2010, when an estimated $921 million was spent on TV ads in state-level races, including $689 million on governors’ races.

At least 16 gubernatorial winners and supporting groups outspent their opponents by more than $1 million. In some states, such as Florida, the successful candidates and their supporters outspent their rivals by huge margins.

Republican Gov. Rick Scott and the groups backing him spent $61 million — the most spent supporting any single gubernatorial candidate this cycle — compared with the $34 million spent by Democratic candidate and former Gov. Charlie Crist and his allies. The heavy spending also made the Florida contest the most expensive TV ad war in the country this election.

Scott and his allies spent roughly $21.50 on TV ads for every vote the governor received, according to the Associated Press’s voting totals. Crist and his allies spent nearly $12.25 on TV ads per vote in the losing effort.

Other top spenders included Illinois Republican Bruce Rauner, who, along with his allies, spent almost $21 per vote on his way to unseating Democratic incumbent Gov. Pat Quinn. Quinn and his supporters spent about $22.75 per vote.

Rauner’s biggest backer was Rauner. The candidate donated at least $26 million to his campaign, the most of any self-funded candidate this election.

Meanwhile incumbent New York Democrat Andrew Cuomo spent $14.75 for each vote in his successful bid to retain the governorship.

In a race that attracted a lot of national attention, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, a Republican, beat Democratic state Sen. Wendy Davis handily after he outspent her on the Lone Star State’s airwaves $24 million to $15 million.

In Pennsylvania, Democrat gubernatorial candidate Tom Wolf unseated unpopular incumbent Gov. Tom Corbett, a Republican, after Wolf and his allies outspent Corbett and his supporters by nearly $10 million on the airwaves — the same margin that kitchen cabinet magnate Wolf donated to his own campaign. He was the sole Democrat to pick up a governor’s mansion.

However one of the biggest upsets of the night was in largely blue Maryland, where Republican challenger Larry Hogan beat Democratic Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown despite being outgunned on TV ads.

Up until even the last few weeks of the race, Brown was expected to cruise to an easy victory. What’s more, Brown and the groups supporting him spent $13.5 million on TV ads, compared with the $5.8 million spent by Hogan and his allies.

Todd Eberly, a political science professor at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, said the race boiled down to what the ads said, rather than how much was spent airing them.

“The economy and taxes were nearly paramount in the minds of Maryland voters this year,” he said. “Hogan really talked about nothing but that issue and Brown avoided it.”

Voters likely conflated independent groups’ ads — 86 percent of which attacked Hogan, according to the Center’s analysis — with those run by Brown himself, Eberly said.

“To the extent that advertising registered with anyone in this election, what registered was that Brown was running a very negative campaign, and I think that hurt him,” he said.

Such independent groups accounted for a quarter of the television spending in governors’ races, often providing the margin that helped boost the winning candidates to victory.

Not counting parties or candidates themselves, the top spending independent groups were the Republican Governors Association ($28.5 million) and the Democratic Governors Association ($17.2 million), national committees that spend and raise millions to elect governors from their parties. The groups also heavily contributed to other independent groups, that spent nearly $11 million on the Democratic side and more than $13 million on the Republican side.

All told, the Republican group was more successful than its Democratic counterpart; of the 21 states where the RGA or its affiliates spent money, Republicans won in 16 races.

By comparison, six out of the 11 Democrats backed on the airwaves by the Democratic group and its affiliates lost.

“It’s a Republican-leaning year, and it’s a good national trend for Republicans that is bleeding down the ballot to governors’ races,” said Kyle Kondik, a political analyst at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.

Two independent groups backed by billionaires had mixed results on Election Day. The environmental group NextGen Climate Action Committee, backed by billionaire Tom Steyer, helped knock out Corbett in Pennsylvania but didn’t find success in Florida or Maine where it supported Democrats.

Meanwhile former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Independence USA PAC, which backed political moderates, found success in Michigan, where it backed incumbent Republican Gov. Rick Snyder. But it struck out in Maryland, where it backed Brown, the Democrat. The governorship of Connecticut, where the group backed Democratic Gov. Dan Malloy, had not been called as of early Wednesday.

In Florida, Scott won re-election with help from more than $10 million in ads sponsored by Let’s Get to Work, a political action committee with ties to Scott though not technically part of his campaign.

In fact, neither Scott nor Crist was responsible for much of the $94 million spent on airtime in the race, the most expensive in the nation. The state’s two major political parties accounted for a whopping 76 percent of the ad spending — $72 million. Another $17 million came from other independent groups, such as Steyer’s NextGen Climate Action Committee, the National Rifle Association and other Florida-specific political organizations.

In Illinois, such assistance from outside groups helped Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn nearly match Republican challenger Bruce Rauner, who tapped his wealth for his campaign.

Worth hundreds of millions of dollars, Rauner took advantage of a fortune made in the private equity industry to unseat the vulnerable incumbent, whose popularity was waning. Quinn fought back with help from the labor-funded Illinois Freedom PAC to almost match Rauner’s camp, yet still lost.

“When one candidate starts spending a lot of money on ads, the other side says, ‘We have to match them,’ and it becomes an arms race,” said Brian Gaines, a political science professor at the University of Illinois.

By the day before the election, both sides had each spent just over $36 million on TV ads, making the race the second-most expensive governor’s contest.

In Arizona, former ice cream executive Doug Ducey was buttressed by roughly $4 million in ads sponsored by outside actors, which added to the $5.7 million worth of airtime bought by his campaign. That helped the Republican dominate the airwaves and beat Democratic nominee Fred DuVal.

In Kansas, Sam Brownback was one of at least 15 incumbent Republican governors who won re-election. Aided by at least $5 million dollars in TV ads produced by outside groups, Brownback beat Democratic challenger and state legislator Paul Davis in a tight race. For his part, Davis was buoyed by more than $3.7 million in spending by outside sponsors.

So-called “outside spending” groups have gained significant traction since 2010, the last year in which a comparable number of governorships were in play and the first election cycle after the Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. FEC ruling, which removed limits on such political spending. Groups independent of candidates and parties sponsored 25 percent of all ads in gubernatorial races this cycle, while outside organizations made up less than 13 percent in 2010.

And the vast majority of these ads — more than 71 percent — attacked candidates, while campaign-endorsed messages were mostly positive.

“Outside groups are always going to do more negative spending than candidates,” said Justin Levitt, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. “It diffuses the blame for a negative message.”

TIME 2014 Election

This Super PAC Was Behind 1 Out of Every 20 Senate Ads

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nev. faces reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nev. faces reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington, Feb. 25, 2014. J. Scott Applewhite—AP

A super PAC with ties to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid put out more than 40,000 ads

If Democrats lose control of the U.S. Senate, it won’t be because they didn’t fully unleash the powers available to them in a post-Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission era of politicking.

Senate Majority PAC, the Democratic super PAC dedicated to holding the Senate, has blasted out more than 40,000 Senate-focused television ads this election cycle — more than any other outside spending group.

For context: Senate Majority PAC alone is responsible for roughly one out of every 20 Senate race ads, including those sponsored by candidates and political party committees. In the hotly contested North Carolina Senate race, the super PAC has run more ads than the Republican candidate Thom Tillis, who’s locked in a statistical dead heat with incumbent Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan.

MORE: GOP poised for Senate win

Senate Majority PAC’s dominance this cycle shows Democrats have largely moved past their initial qualms regarding the outside spending frenzy enabled by Citizens United, which empowered corporations, unions and other special interests to raise and spend unlimited amounts of money to directly advocate for and against political candidates.

They are now playing the super PAC game to win. The group’s core contributors are a cross-section of Democratic stalwarts, dominated by billionaires and labor unions with reasons for making sure Democrats continue to control the Senate.

Led by seasoned political disciples of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Senate Majority PAC has raised more than $53 million this cycle. As of Friday, it had made $47 million worth of independent expenditures — most in the form of TV ads skewering Republican candidates.

MORE: How 2014 became the “gotcha” election

Nearly two-thirds of the money — about $34 million— came from contributors giving half a million dollars or more, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of contribution records filed with the Federal Election Commission. That’s roughly the same percentage as marquee Republican super PAC American Crossroads, though that group has reported raising just more than $28 million so far this cycle, far less than Senate Majority PAC.

Senate Majority PAC’s spending is a fraction of the close to $700 million the Center for Responsive Politics predicts outside groups will spend on the midterm elections. Overall, CRP expects combined spending by Republican candidates, party committees, and conservative-leaning outside groups to outstrip spending on the Democratic side this cycle.

Senate Majority PAC declined to comment for this story, but those facts may explain why Senate Majority PAC contributors are still talking as if they’re big-money underdogs.

MORE: Kentucky Democrat tears up on campaign trail

“[W]e can’t compete in terms of money,” Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said in an e-mailed response to questions about the union’s support of Senate Majority PAC. “So, our strategy is to leverage long-standing relationships with groups like the Senate Majority PAC to play big in high-priority races.”

The American Federation of Teachers has contributed $1.95 million to Senate Majority PAC so far this cycle, making it one of the group’s largest benefactors.

All the money and all the ads still may not add up to enough for Democrats to hold the Senate. Several of the Senate races that will decide control of the chamber are still far too close to call. Whatever the result, Senate Majority PAC has been credited with keeping the races close and Democrats competitive.

MORE: Sarah Palin plays surprise role in Alaska governor’s race

The results and the lessons of the election are certain to reverberate into the 2016 election cycle, when the White House will also be up for grabs.

Big-dollar donors

Senate Majority PAC’s contributors each have their own reasons for spending to keep Senate Democrats in charge. Take Sealaska Corp., a southeast-Alaska based corporation created by a federal act and owned by thousands of native shareholders. The company contributed $10,000 to Senate Majority PAC in September.

Jaeleen Araujo, the company’s general counsel and corporate secretary, said Sealaska’s board wanted to support the re-election bid of Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), the current chairwoman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, because Landrieu has supported the land legislation that is Sealaska’s top priority.

Senate Majority PAC has spent more than $2.4 million against Rep. Bill Cassidy (R-La.), Landrieu’s main challenger.

Sealaska is owed lands under the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, and Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) has sponsored a bill that would allow the company to acquire lands outside of those originally designated under the act. Sen. Landrieu is listed as a co-sponsor on an earlier version of the bill. The current version is now awaiting floor votes in both the House and the Senate.

“If you could even understand the effort we’ve had to put into this land legislation over the past four congresses,” Araujo said, adding that Landrieu’s continued support “is just so important to us.”

Araujo explained that she and others called contacts in Washington, D.C., trying to find out which group was best positioned to take a contribution aimed at boosting Landrieu. Araujo said a Washington, D.C.-based board member heard Senate Majority PAC would be a good option. Sealaska said the money was to be used to benefit Landrieu. “We did specify the direction on the check,” Araujo said.

Senate Majority PAC spokesman Ty Matsdorf declined to discuss how it used Sealaska’s contribution, citing a policy of not commenting on fundraising.

Senate Majority PAC’s largest contributor is environmental activist and former hedge fund investor Thomas Steyer, who together with his super PAC, NextGen Climate Action, which is primarily funded by Steyer, gave $5.5 million.

Chicago media mogul Fred Eychaner, the top donor to Democratic super PACs during the 2012 election cycle, gave $5 million, the next largest amount. Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, an advocate for stronger gun laws who has spent millions of dollars on elections so far this cycle, contributed $2.5 million.

Unions and groups associated with unions have so far contributed about $12.5 million, with the single largest amount — $2.75 million — coming from Working for Working Americans, a political action committee affiliated with the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America. Trial lawyers, via the American Association for Justice PAC, contributed $925,000.

Senate Majority PAC touts itself as running a “transparent” operation. But the description, while valid in part, belies the seven-figure amounts of support it’s received from “dark money” operations that don’t generally reveal the root sources of their funds.

For example, Patriot Majority USA, a liberal “social welfare” nonprofit that heavily supports Democratic political causes and doesn’t reveal its donors, has provided it more than $483,000 to cover salaries and insurance, FEC records indicate. Patriot Majority USA is led by a longtime ally of Reid, the Senate majority leader.

Senate Majority PAC has also accepted money from Indian tribes and limited liability companies, including $1 million in September from an outfit called HFNWA LLC. It has addresses in Arkansas and Washington, D.C., and is managed, according to Arkansas Secretary of State records, by Franklin L. Haney, a Democratic political patron and real estate mogul.

It also accepted $500,000 from the Campion Advocacy Fund, a “social welfare” nonprofit group that advocates for wilderness protection and an end to homelessness. The group is affiliated with the Campion Foundation, a private, nonprofit foundation founded by Tom and Sonya Campion. Tom Campion is the founder of the Zumiez clothing store chain. The Campions were listed as cohosts on an invitation to a $25,000-per-person Senate Majority PAC fundraiser in July that featured a dinner with President Barack Obama.

Another LLC contributor is listed as Elmendorf Strategies LLC, whose namesake, Steve Elmendorf, is one of the nation’s top Democratic lobbyists. The entity gave $10,000. Elmendorf’s lobbying partner is Jimmy Ryan, a former senior adviser to Reid. Ryan gave Senate Majority PAC $50,000.

Senate Majority PAC is also the driving financial force behind a self-described “nonpartisan” super PAC called Put Alaska First that is supporting Democratic Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska.

Alaskans themselves have little to do with the funding of Put Alaska First: Senate Majority PAC has provided the super PAC with more than $8.6 million, 98 percent of the Alaska group’s total receipts — a fact that’s hardly obvious to Alaskans watching the thousands of TV ads the group has run to primarily bash Begich’s Republican opponent, Dan Sullivan.

Senate Majority PAC also describes itself as “independent.” But outside observers say the contributor list shows that even though Senate Majority PAC technically is an independent group, its establishment ties and ability to unite Democratic donors under a big-money tent show how closely it is connected to party leaders.

“Senate Majority PAC is run by a couple of Democratic aides, it has close ties to the leadership, to Harry Reid. It’s almost as if this is the return of ‘soft money,’” said Bill Allison, editorial director of the Sunlight Foundation, which monitors money in politics, referring to unlimited contributions to national parties that were banned in 2002. “What this looks like to me really is, if you go back and look at the soft money donors, this is who a lot of them are.”

In all, the Center for Public Integrity reached out to nearly three dozen of Senate Majority PAC’s contributors. Many declined to speak for the record, although others explained why they’re supporting the group.

Heather Podesta, a lobbyist and prominent Democratic fundraiser who said she is on Senate Majority PAC’s board, has herself given $25,000 this cycle. She pointed to the super PAC’s successful record from the 2012 elections as proof of its effectiveness and as something attractive to donors.

“I would say that one of the reasons why these races are as close as they are and we haven’t seen Republicans break out as expected is the hard diligent work of Senate Majority PAC,” she said.

Elizabeth Simons, president of the Heising-Simons Foundation and the daughter of James Simons, the founder and former CEO of hedge fund Renaissance Technologies, explained in an email why she gave Senate Majority PAC $900,000, her largest-ever political contribution. Her father, a prominent Democratic donor, gave $2 million.

“This year I felt I had no choice in light of Supreme Court decisions that have collectively had the effect of handing political power to the rich and disenfranchising large swathes of Americans, primarily Democrats,” she said. “I am now a player in this sad game, but the other side has deep pockets, and so I decided to dig into mine.”

Ads keep coming

More than 230 candidates, political committees and nonprofit organizations have combined to run about 908,000 U.S. Senate-focused TV ads through Oct. 27, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of data from Kantar Media/CMAG, an advertising tracking service.

With nearly 45,000 TV ads through Oct. 27, Senate Majority PAC easily bests all other individual super PACs and nonprofits.

The vast majority of Senate Majority PAC’s ads attack Republican candidates as opposed to promoting Democratic candidates. Only the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee — a national party committee founded in 1916 that, as its name implies, exists specifically to elect Democrats to the Senate — has aired more TV ads this cycle than Senate Majority PAC, with more than 51,000 and counting.

Compare Senate Majority PAC’s TV ad sponsorship to conservative nonprofit outfit Crossroads GPS, which has produced about 29,000 ads so far this election and ranks a distant second among super PACs and nonprofits. Conservative, Koch brothers-backed nonprofit Americans for Prosperity, with about 28,300 Senate-focused TV ads, ranks third.

Paul Lindsay, a spokesman for Crossroads GPS and sister super PAC American Crossroads, which has aired more than 16,000 TV ads, declined to comment on Senate Majority PAC.

In North Carolina alone, Senate Majority PAC has aired more than 13,600 ads.

That’s more than any single super PAC, nonprofit or political committee has run in any one U.S. Senate race this cycle. And almost all of the ads have attacked Tillis — and Tillis’ own campaign only days ago cracked the 10,000 TV ad mark.

For perspective: Only five other super PACs or nonprofit groups this cycle have produced as many Senate race TV ads — across all 36 races in play this year — as Senate Majority PAC has in North Carolina alone.

Among TV ad sponsorship in other top U.S. Senate races by super PACs and nonprofits, Senate Majority PAC ranks first in Michigan and second in Colorado, New Hampshire, Kentucky, Louisiana, Arkansas and West Virginia. It’s third in Iowa.

Put Alaska First, the Senate Majority PAC funded super PAC active in Alaska’s Senate race, has aired about 9,000 ads through Oct. 27.

Expect Senate Majority PAC to continue its ad barrage through Election Day.

In New Hampshire, for example, the super PAC was already girding in July for close race between incumbent Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen and her Republican challenger, former Sen. Scott Brown of Massachusetts.

Even though Brown had yet to secure the GOP nomination at that point — he won the Republican primary in September — Senate Majority PAC was booking TV ad time for late October and early November, according to Federal Communications Commission filings.

That includes an around-the-clock presence on WMUR-TV 9, New Hampshire’s only in-state, network-affiliated station, through today, the day before Election Day, FCC documents show.

It’s the same story in North Carolina, where Senate Majority PAC is slated to spend well into the six-figure range roughing up Tillis during the final days of the state’s U.S. Senate campaign.

At WSOC-TV 9 in Charlotte alone, Senate Majority PAC has reserved more than $218,300 worth of 11th-hour air time at all times day and night, during shows that range from “Good Morning America” and the local evening news to soap opera “General Hospital” and crime drama “Castle,” according to filings with the FCC.

And on Thursday, Senate Majority PAC reported spending another $700,000 on media buys and direct mailers targeting Republican U.S. Senate candidates Joni Ernst in Iowa, Brown in New Hampshire and McConnell in Kentucky.

In some ways, it makes sense that Senate Majority PAC has emerged as a dominant force in the world of super PACs.

Senate Majority PAC is descended from Commonsense Ten, one of the groups that originally prodded federal regulators to rule that corporations and labor unions could donate unlimited money to super PACs.

Big money, it turns out, is embedded in Senate Majority PAC’s DNA.

Read next: Republicans See Senate Majority Within Reach Day Before Elections

TIME 2014 Election

Obama Digital Guru to Democrats: Stop Being Lame

Joe Rospars founding partner of Blue State Digital who was a director for Barack Obama's 2008 campaign for President of the United States, speaks during an interview with The Associated Press during Personal Democracy Forum Europe in Barcelona on Nov. 21, 2009.
Joe Rospars founding partner of Blue State Digital who was a director for Barack Obama's 2008 campaign for President of the United States, speaks during an interview with The Associated Press during Personal Democracy Forum Europe in Barcelona on Nov. 21, 2009. Manu Fernandez—AP

Joe Rospars is Founder & CEO of Blue State Digital and was the principal digital strategist for both of Barack Obama's presidential campaigns. He got his start as a writer on Howard Dean’s 2004 campaign, over a decade ago.

The emails and campaign ads of this year's election have exposed a "creative crisis in the Democratic Party"

“With a frequency and desperation matched only by a Nigerian prince selling a Groupon deal for boner pills, the Democrats and the emails will not stop trying to make you give them money.” That’s how Jon Stewart described Democratic efforts to raise small-dollar contributions ahead of next week’s midterm elections. And he wasn’t far off.

The emails are the new punching bag for critics, but their critique is fundamentally the same one that many have about the avalanche of thirty-second television commercials: a lack of creative integrity and a palpable disrespect for the audience. Taken together, the complainers about both kinds of content identify what amounts to a creative crisis in the Democratic Party. And no matter what happens on Tuesday night, we will wake up Wednesday morning needing to confront it.

As an emeritus practitioner of Democratic campaign emailing, having overseen the online fundraising first for Howard Dean and then both of Barack Obama’s campaigns, I find myself conflicted about the deluge in my inbox. My first instinct is to defend the barrage, because I vastly prefer a political party and candidates funded by a no-stone-unturned approach to generating small donations from ordinary people to the alternative. You don’t hear the same kind of frustration at Republican fundraising emails for a simple reason: they don’t send as many, because the Republican Party relies far less on ordinary people contributing to their campaigns.

But no one wants to be treated like they’re stupid. That means people producing both types of content are missing opportunities for potential persuasion and engagement—and creating more cynicism in politics along the way. Many in both the TV and mass email industries will tell you that they’re getting important communication done with their TV ads and emails, and that the complaints are just a cost of doing business.

And part of the increased complaints surely do result from the sheer volume of both types of content. More big money in politics means more TV ads on more channels than ever. And with better data analytics driving ever more precise airtime-buying strategies, you won’t just see ads on the local news. If you’re a targeted voter, the ads will find you watching “Top Chef” reruns or the History Channel. But they are still likely to be the nearly-campy, scary, negative ads with fake-torn newspaper headlines and grave voiceover. Or the old standby of a candidate in a business suit speaking meaningless words earnestly into the camera.

Similarly, the ability to deliver email to supporters has become more mechanized. In 2004, for the Dean campaign to send email to all of its 500,000 supporters, it required technical staff to create the recipient list and build the message in HTML, and then it took 12 hours for all the emails to be delivered after hitting the “send” button. Today, my own company and others provide the ability for campaigns and organizations to have non-technical staff build endless, personalized variations of email to multiple segments of their supporter list, which after hitting “send” get delivered at the rate of more than 20 million an hour.

But while you may be able to get something accomplished through sheer volume of terrible content, people are tuning out and getting angry at the content based on something more than volume.

The truth is that the increase in volume—in particular the ability to segment and deliver more personalized communications—has in many cases eclipsed the creative capacity of the usual players and their organizations. More and better resources need to be devoted to not just shoveling ever more content out the door and hoping for the best, but accounting for the quality, veracity, and cohesiveness of the content. The Democrats should be a party that not only takes pride in winning, which of course comes first, but also seeks to win with a lasting ability to take pride in the work.

The Obama campaigns built the biggest grassroots fundraising base in political history, in part through relentless testing and optimization. Our staff would dream up endless variations and approaches to inspiring someone to click and donate. But we didn’t just throw anything at the wall to see what stuck; there was a creative filter applied to all that experimentation. That is, our success was driven by tactical innovation that happened within the confines of the kind of organization we wanted to be and the kind of relationship we sought to build with our supporters.

From what we see in this midterm cycle, that model is by no means a given for the candidates and campaigns that come after. The 2016 campaigns will be the front line of determining what kind of party and movement we’re going to be. And those 2016 candidates will face decisions about what kind of campaign they want to have—whether they’ll embrace the cheap, the misleading, the disingenuous, or whether they’ll aspire to do something better.

I feel obliged to note that, for my part, as someone who came up doing the digital work, I see the emails as the lesser evil. The carpet-bombing of terrible TV ads is the single biggest driver of the endless money-for-influence machine in politics. At least the email scoundrels are raising money, and doing it the right way, rather than spending it.

And I want to be clear not to let the Republicans off the hook here. The GOP’s content isn’t any less annoying, disingenuous or over the top—it is often far worse, and has even more serious consequences. The race-baiting TV ads are in full force, and some of the most reprehensible language you’ll see used in public by the right surfaces in their campaign emails. They get away with it because there just aren’t very many people on those lists.

It’s also important to note that despite all the noise on both sides, you can see glimmers of great content out there. Take Senator Al Franken’s emails—a delightful mix of holiday recipes from the Franken household and a human, thoughtful approach to engaging his supporters on the nuts and bolts of campaigns (a recent appeal promised frugality: “Pizza for our volunteers? Sure. But minimal toppings.”). Over time, I suspect that the churn-and-burn approach to online fundraising will be bested by the respectful, playful, urgent approach of organizations like Franken’s. Short of Franken moonlighting as Creative Director for his fellow Democratic Senators, though, the path ahead for the Democrats will be difficult. The overdrive of the social-media news cycle will pull campaigns and organizations toward more content, rather than better content.

Meanwhile, the relentless arms race of TV ads and the ratcheting up of fundraising targets to fund them puts the front-line producers of content in a terrible position. Almost anyone you speak to who makes their living cutting an ad or producing an email would prefer that things were different, but they’re working around the clock and barely keeping up. They just want to get through the cycle and help the good guys win.

So in 2016 it will be up to candidates and campaign managers to fight the madness and put the resources in place to create more compelling messages on TV and the web than ever before. Resources alone won’t be enough, though. The campaigns will need the right leadership and structure in place with the creative chops, political judgment and frankness to enforce a commitment to a single, overriding content priority: Don’t Be Lame.

Joe Rospars is Founder & CEO of Blue State Digital and was the principal digital strategist for Obama for America in 2008 and 2012.

 

 

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME 2014 Election

Straw Into Gold: Candidates Trade Leadership PAC Dollars for Campaign Cash

Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., right, joined by Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., left, urges funding for the Federal Emergency Management Agency as the agency is on track to run out of disaster relief funds after responding to a spate of natural disasters this year, most recently Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee, at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, Sept. 14, 2011.
Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., right, joined by Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., left, urges funding for the Federal Emergency Management Agency as the agency is on track to run out of disaster relief funds after responding to a spate of natural disasters this year, most recently Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee, at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, Sept. 14, 2011. J. Scott Applewhite—AP

Senate contenders find mutual benefit by shuffling money back and forth between accounts

With just a few days remaining in the first quarter of 2014, Mary Landrieu did something generous: The embattled Democratic senator from Louisiana, herself in the midst of an exceedingly tough re-election race, used her leadership PAC to give $5,000 to the campaign of Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), who at the time expected a competitive race of his own and had won in 2008 by just 312 votes.

The contribution from Landrieu’s Jazz PAC came on March 28, three days before the Federal Election Commission’s filing deadline for candidate campaign finance reports, and plumped up Franken’s fundraising numbers — figures that would be seen as an indication of the former Saturday Night Live star’s ability to attract the money he needed to win.

Landrieu’s action looks less altruistic, though, considering what happened next: Franken’s leadership PAC, Midwest Values PAC, gave $5,000 to Landrieu’s campaign on March 31 — the very last day of the reporting cycle. As with Franken’s, Landrieu’s fundraising numbers were goosed just a bit as a result.

The trade appears to have been no coincidence. Landrieu engaged in 21 such exchanges through Sept. 30 of this midterm election cycle, giving $96,000 from Jazz PAC to other candidates’ campaigns. Within seven days before or after each donation, she received exactly the same amount back from the leadership PACs of those same candidates. Most of the activity occurred shortly before an FEC reporting deadline. Some of the trades happened within the very same day.

Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) has boosted her campaign account by nearly $100,000 using an increasingly popular maneuver involving leadership PACs.

And she’s not the only one. Democratic Sens. Jeanne Shaheen (N.H.), Kay Hagan (N.C.) and Mark Udall (Colo.) also all had at least 20 such swaps, each of which took a week or less to complete. All are in squeaker elections. Other Democrats who had more than 10 transactions: Sens. Franken, Chris Coons (Del.), Jack Reed (R.I.), Jeff Merkley (Ore.), Mark Begich (Alaska), Tom Udall (N.M.), Mark Pryor (Ark.) and Mark Warner (Va.), and Reps. Bruce Braley (Iowa) and Gary Peters (Mich.), both of whom are running for Senate seats.

On the Republican side, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky engaged in 14 of these exchanges, transferring $70,000 out of his Bluegrass Committee PAC to other GOP candidates who then used their PACs to donate $67,500 to his campaign, all within seven days. Sen. Pat Roberts (Kan.) did the same thing 11 times in this cycle using his Preserving America’s Traditions PAC.

In an era of multimillon-dollar donations to outside spending groups, the sums involved here may seem like small potatoes. But for candidates forced to gather contributions under hard-money limits — they can take no more than $2,600 per election from individual donors — every little bit counts. And if the contributions are the larger sums that PACs can give, so much the better. For an indication of how anxious candidates are to scoop up every dollar, look no farther than the desperate emailed fundraising appeals they send out as, each quarter, reporting deadlines approach.

“The totals aren’t huge, but this is an example of the ‘leave no stone unturned’ principle of campaign finance,” said Bob Biersack, senior fellow at the Center for Responsive Politics and a 30-year veteran of the FEC. “This is going to pretty amazing lengths.”

And some think the swaps are little more than an attempt to evade legal limits, since leadership PACs can give no more than $5,000 per election to their own sponsor’s campaign.

leadership shuffle

“What you’re looking at clearly strikes me as an abuse of leadership PACs that undermines the integrity of basic contribution limits,” said Paul S. Ryan, senior counsel at the Campaign Legal Center. The transactions — even though they don’t involve exactly the same dollars circling back to the original donor — could be considered a form of money laundering, he added.

Said another campaign finance lawyer who asked not to be named: “This appears not to be happening by spontaneous combustion.”

Landrieu and the others have also used their leadership PACs to support candidates who did not partner with them in quick-turnaround reciprocal contributions. Her Jazz PAC has given a total of $266,500 to House and Senate Democratic candidates, for example. But a substantial portion of that has come back to her in the form of contributions from the leadership PACs of the recipients of her donations.

Neither Landrieu’s campaign press office nor the campaign’s attorney responded to multiple requests for comment.

These are the top 2014 cycle practitioners of exchanges within one week, through Sept. 30:

DonatedVsReceived

 

Building goodwill — and more

Leadership PACs date back to the late 1970s, when Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) set one up, with a nod from the FEC, and used it to win the chairmanship of the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Health by giving out tens of thousands of dollars to his committee colleagues. This cycle, with Waxman retiring, two lawmakers who want to fill his slot as the top-ranking Democrat on Energy and Commerce are using their PACs to woo support from other members of the panel.

And supporting endangered members of their own party is certainly another way that lawmakers use these structures. Landrieu has hauled in more leadership PAC money than any other candidate this cycle, receiving a total of $446,500. Also among the top 10 are Pryor, Hagan, Warner, Shaheen and Mark Udall — all Senate Democrats whose re-election bids are no walk in the park. Below are the top 10 recipients of leadership PAC funds this cycle:

 

Viveca Novak

The win-friends-and-influence-people model of the leadership PAC isn’t always the one that’s followed, though. In fact, there are few restrictions on how a leadership PAC’s sponsor can spend its cash. Sometimes they’re used as little more than slush funds, taking in contributions of up to $5,000 per year from lobbyists and special interests who have already maxed out to a lawmaker’s campaign committee and spending the money on travel, greens fees or nice meals for that same lawmaker – at times in the company of the very interests that donated the loot in the first place.

Most leadership PACs don’t donate to their own sponsor’s campaigns. That may be because, even though they may do so within the limits, the FEC hasn’t made the rules easy to discern. Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) is one of the few senators to have done so in the 2014 cycle, and he did it big, giving his campaign the maximum $5,000 permitted for each of his races: primary, general and — a special circumstance — his primary runoff contest. He sent another $5,000 to his legal fund to help fight his primary opponent’s challenge to Cochran’s victory.

Other than those outright, strictly limited donations, though, campaign activities can’t be paid for by a candidate’s PAC. According to the FEC, a leadership PAC financed and controlled by a candidate or officeholder is “neither an authorized [campaign] committee nor affiliated with the candidate’s authorized committee.”

But the swaps appear to be a way to work around the limits. “The net effect is to turn leadership PAC money into campaign money, campaign finance lawyer Kenneth Gross, a former head of the FEC’s enforcement division.

More money each cycle

In this election cycle, 531 leadership PACs — most of them associated with current lawmakers but some linked to former members or candidates — have raised a total of $144.7 million, giving about 36 percent of it, or $52.4 million, to candidates and party committees.

As leadership PAC wealth has grown with every election cycle, so has the rate of short-term exchanges between candidates. During the 2008 cycle, 32 candidates made a total of 71 trades that were completed within seven days. So far this cycle 170 of them have occurred among 56 candidates.

The amount of money changing hands has increased sharply over the past four elections cycles as well — growing from $674,400 in 2008 to $1.28 million so far this cycle. The 2014 number expands to $1.7 million when the lens is widened to look at exchanges within 30 days, rather than seven. But the overwhelming number of such round trips — 75 percent of the ones that occurred within 30 days — have happened within a week.

While more candidates, 92, conducted these exchanges during the 2012 cycle, this cycle’s top traders appear to have perfected the process. Prior to the 2014 races, no candidate made such an exchange more than 14 times. There’s also more money involved this time; the 2012 total was $1.07 million.

Senate Democrats seem to have dominated the practice this cycle, but during the 2010 midterms it was GOP Senate candidates making the majority of short-term exchanges. Sens. Chuck Grassley (Iowa), Johnny Isakson (Ga.), Richard Burr (N.C.) and John Thune (S.D.) topped the list as the Republicans picked up six seats in that election.

Same-day turnarounds

Democrat Coons is not in a competitive race, but he has been party to 18 transactions with a round trip time of less than seven days during this cycle — shelling out $55,000 from his Blue Hen PAC and receiving $58,000 in return.

When reached for comment, Coons’ campaign dismissed the possibility of quid pro quo.

“Senator Coons has supported Democratic candidates, including a number of his colleagues in the Senate, through his campaign account and leadership PAC,” campaign spokesman Jesse Chadderdon said in an email. “Many of his colleagues have been supportive of his re-election campaign as well. Whether or not another candidate has supported him or will support him down the road just isn’t part of the evaluation process. It’s about helping the best people win difficult elections.”

Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire has the most single-day turnarounds of leadership PAC exchanges.

Even though it’s not surprising to see candidates showing good will for their party colleagues by way of their checkbooks, this explanation seems to fall short of clarifying exchanges made between candidates in the same 24 hour span.

During the 2014 election cycle, candidates have traded leadership PAC funds for campaign cash on the same day 37 times using this mechanism; 28 of them involved the exact same amount coming and going. The sum exchanged most frequently was the maximum allowable $5,000, though lesser amounts that nevertheless matched up also went back and forth.

Shaheen is the leader in this category, sending money from her A New Direction PAC to colleagues’ campaign coffers and receiving leadership PAC checks in her campaign account on the same day on eight occasions. On June 24 of this year alone, Shaheen managed to complete this cycle twice — with Coons and Reed.

Her campaign did not respond to OpenSecrets Blog’s request for a comment or explanation of the acitvity. Nor did more than a dozen other campaigns that were called and emailed.

Several campaign finance experts we asked about the pattern of activity mentioned former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay’s (R-Texas) conviction for taking corporate contributions raised by a state-level PAC and sending them through the Republican National Committee, which then contributed to state candidates named on a list that was given to the national group along with the money; Texas law prohibits corporate money from going to candidates, and the GOP leader was charged with money laundering. His conviction was ultimately overturned.

While the leadership PAC exchanges differ in many ways from the activity DeLay orchestrated, the transactions similarly feature attempts to replicate the peculiar talents of the fairy-tale Rumpelstiltskin.

“Moving money around to try to change it from cash that isn’t useful, into cash that is, has always been part of the fundraising game,” said Biersack. But the leadership PAC-to-campaign committee swaps, he said, are “an illustration of how to game the system in every conceivable way.”

Center for Responsive Politics researcher Andrew Mayersohn contributed to this story. To read more from the center, click here.

TIME 2014 Election

Mega-Donors Give Big in State Elections

Illinois Republican gubernatorial candidate Bruce Rauner exits the polling place after voting in Winnetka, Ill.
Illinois Republican gubernatorial candidate Bruce Rauner exits the polling place after voting in Winnetka, Ill., March 18, 2014. Andrew Nelles—AP

Donors gave millions in races for governor, especially when they were the ones running

At least 29 donors have given $1 million or more to state-level campaigns so far this election, with a dozen of the big givers made up of self-funding candidates, according to an analysis of campaign finance data.

The other big donors to state campaigns in the 2014 election include billionaires, corporate giants, unions and nonprofit political groups. Each donor has shelled out more than 19 times the country’s median household income.

According to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of state records collected by the nonpartisan National Institute on Money in State Politics, top donors include:

  • Illinois Republican candidate Bruce Rauner, who has given more than $14 million (* see below), mostly to fund his own campaign for governor;
  • Pennsylvania Democrat Tom Wolf, who has used $10 million of his own money in an attempt to unseat unpopular incumbent Gov. Tom Corbett, a Republican;
  • The Republican Governors Association, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that has given at least $9.6 million to gubernatorial candidates in at least six states;
  • Arizona gubernatorial candidate Christine Jones, who gave more than $5.3 million, nearly all to fund her own campaign, only to lose in the Republican primary;
  • And Chicago-based hedge fund manager Ken Griffin, who has given more than $4.7 million, mostly to Rauner in Illinois.

The analysis is preliminary — the totals will only go up as more contribution reports are filed in the states. In addition, the National Institute is still processing reports that have already come in. Less than 80 percent of those reports have been processed thus far this election cycle. Rauner (*) alone, for example, has given at least $12 million more for a total of $26 million, state records show.

Despite those limitations, the Center still identified at least 29 of these million-dollar donors who have given more than $84 million out of the more than $1 billion in the two-year, 2014 election cycle. The Center looked at reports processed by the National Institute through Oct. 29.

While the race for U.S. Senate has grabbed most of the national election headlines this year, much of the action is at the state level. Thirty-six governorships are on the ballot in addition to more than 200 other statewide races and thousands of statehouse contests.

And unlike at the federal level, some states allow unlimited contributions to candidates. In addition, several states also allow direct contributions from the treasuries of corporations and unions.

Seeding their own chances

Rauner, Wolf and Jones are just three of at least 12 candidates for state-level office who have poured at least $1 million into their own campaigns.

States can limit contributions to candidates, but there are no such limitations on how much a candidate can give to his or her own campaign. That gives wealthy individuals with political aspirations an advantage over less wealthy opponents, said Bill Rosenberg, a political science professor at Drexel University.

“If an individual wants to run for public office, and they can be self-financed and the parties view them as reasonable candidates,” Rosenberg said, “a lot of times the party will just step out of the way because they can take those financial resources and put them into other races.”

In the case of Rauner, his early contributions to his campaign may have helped him attract even more cash to his joint campaign with running mate Evelyn Sanguinetti, including at least $4.5 million from Griffin and $7 million from the Republican Governors Association.

“The millions reassured prospective donors that the Republican Party wasn’t going to have a flash in the pan here, that he was going to be in until the end, that he wasn’t going to get outspent,” said Brian Gaines, a political science professor at the University of Illinois.

Limitations on influence

But other donors who give directly to candidates often face strict limits.

In 21 states, corporations cannot give money to candidates’ campaigns, and 16 states ban unions from giving, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. (Unions and corporations can give through their political action committees, though contributions may be limited.)

Thirty-eight states cap the amount a person or group can give to a single candidate.

And until recently, donors in more than a dozen states were limited in how much money they could give overall in an election cycle. The U.S. Supreme Court struck down aggregate limits at the federal level in April, with its ruling in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission. States such as Connecticut and Wisconsin have pledged to not enforce the limits in state elections this year.

It’s not yet clear how far-reaching the impact of the decision may be on this election. Still, the existing contribution limits largely shape the way money pours into elections.

The two states seeing the highest number of donations to candidates from the mega-donors so far are Texas, where individuals and political action committees can give candidates as much as they want, and Illinois, whose governor’s race allows unlimited contributions this cycle.

Six-figure donations are the norm in marquee races in Texas.

This cycle, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, a Republican running for governor, received at least $900,000 from Dallas billionaire Harold Simmons, who died in December 2013. Energy tycoon Kelcy Warren has given Abbott at least $450,000, while telecommunications executive Kenny Troutt along with his wife, Lisa, has given him at least $350,000.

Such large-scale giving does not carry a stigma in Texas of trying to buy access, according to Mark P. Jones, a political science professor at Rice University in Houston. Instead, he said, it is “simply par for the course” in the Lone Star State.

“Large donations have little to no political blowback,” Jones said.

Under Illinois rules, if a candidate for statewide office contributes more than $250,000 to his or her own campaign, or if an outside group spends that amount supporting a candidate in the race, caps for contributions to a single candidate are thrown out in that race.

At first Rauner, the Republican gubernatorial candidate, avoided giving his opponent the chance for limitless fundraising by injecting $249,000, just below the threshold, into his campaign in March 2013.

But before the end of that year, Rauner gave his campaign another $1 million, pulling the plug on caps in the race. By now, the Republican nominee has contributed more than $26 million of his own money to his campaign, according to Illinois campaign finance records.

Rauner’s campaign did not respond to the Center’s request for comment.

His self-funding also cleared the path for incumbent Gov. Pat Quinn and his running mate to accept more than $3.6 million from the Democratic Governors Association, more than $755,000 from Chicago media mogul Fred Eychaner and millions from unions, including more than $1.2 million from a branch of the Service Employees International Union.

Getting around the limits

Even in states with contribution restrictions, well-heeled donors have found ways to give generously — and legally — to the candidates they favor.

In Pennsylvania, for example, corporations and unions can’t give directly to candidates, but they can give unlimited amounts of money if they establish a political action committee in the organization’s name. That’s how the Pennsylvania State Education Association, a state teachers union, gave $500,000 to Wolf’s gubernatorial campaign.

In New York, wealthy individuals can donate through multiple limited liability corporations to dodge the state’s $60,800 per cycle contribution limit for such businesses. Real estate magnate Leonard Litwin, for example, has given at least $1 million to Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo using this method, according to a recent report by the New York Public Interest Research Group. The original sources of such contributions, though, are not reflected in the National Institute on Money in State Politics’ data.

A representative for Litwin did not respond to requests for comment.

Sometimes the best way around the rules is to avoid them altogether by giving to independent groups instead of candidate campaigns. Thanks to the 2010 Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, and subsequent rulings, there is no limit to what a person, corporation or union can give to independently acting political organizations.

The tactic is widespread this election. Roughly a fifth of the television ads airing in state-level races this cycle were paid for by groups that operate independently from candidates’ official campaigns, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of data from media tracking firm Kantar Media/CMAG.

But many donors this cycle have given directly to candidates and helped fund outside political efforts beyond state-level races.

Eychaner, for example, may not make a list of million-dollar donors to candidates for state-level office this election. He has so far given at least $755,000 to Quinn in Illinois. But he has also given about $8 million to federal super PACs this year, according to the Federal Election Commission. In 2012, he was the largest Democratic donor to independent spending groups, having given $14 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

A representative for Eychaner declined to comment.

On the other side, Griffin was one of the five largest donors to the Washington, D.C.-based Republican Governors Association in the first nine months of this year, according to the group’s latest tax filing.

A representative for Griffin declined to comment.

Why do they give?

For individual donors, there are several likely reasons why they may give to candidates’ campaigns, said Loyola Law School Professor Justin Levitt.

For some, political ideology is a motivating factor, Levitt said. For others, large contributions are a way for donors to thrust themselves into the public consciousness. Still others are looking to gain favor with the people who could end up regulating their business interests. Sometimes, it’s a combination of the three.

Though some corporations are ideologically motivated, most businesses’ political donations are effectively “bet hedging,” he said.

Cable television giant Comcast Corp. parceled out at least $1.2 million in donations to candidates for state-level office in 36 states, often with as little as $100 given to the campaign of a legislative candidate.

“We believe that it’s important to be involved in the political process,” said Comcast spokeswoman Sena Fitzmaurice. “There are probably thousands of bills and regulatory state actions every year that affect the company.”

Fitzmaurice said the company tends to give across party lines and mostly to incumbents.

The company gave to Democrats in 28 states, Republicans in 31 states and at least one independent in Alabama, the Center’s analysis shows.

Where the company directs its political donations could depend on factors such as whether an election could shift party control of a state legislature or whether a state is considering regulatory action, Fitzmaurice said.

“For a corporation, making a donation may well be laying a bed of good will for legislators or regulators down the line, either to prevent unfavorable legislation or to try and get favorable legislation,” Levitt said. “It’s not uncommon at all for legislators, at least, to do a mental check of whether they’ve received a contribution before they decide exactly how badly they want to schedule a particular meeting.”

Liz Essley Whyte contributed to this report.

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