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.

TIME 2014 Election

Corporations, Advocacy Groups Spend Big on Ballot Measures

A still from an advertisement payed for by Citizens Against the Maui County Farming Ban, a group backed by agricultural giants Monsanto and DowAgroSciences YouTube

Spending on TV ads soars to $119 million ahead of Election Day

Correction appended: October 26, 2014

Bonnie Marsh is worried that many of her neighbors’ health problems stem from big companies farming genetically modified crops around her in Maui County, Hawaii. So she helped collect enough signatures to put an initiative on the November ballot that would ban growing such crops until an environmental study is done.

“We’ve come forward because we feel there’s a real threat to the health of the Earth,” said Marsh, a nurse who focuses on natural remedies. “We are done being an experimental lab.”

Marsh said her group, Sustainable Hawaiian Agriculture for the Keiki and the ‘Aina, has raised about $76,000 so far for what is the first-ever citizen-initiated ballot measure in Maui County. They’ve used about $17,000 of it to buy TV ads to help get the word out. But Marsh’s group is being outraised and outspent by business-supported opposition.

Citizens Against the Maui County Farming Ban, a group backed by agricultural giants Monsanto and DowAgroSciences, has already spent more than $2 million — or $23.13 per registered voter in the county — on television ads arguing that the ban would kill jobs, cost the local economy millions of dollars and block crops that have been proven safe.

And more ads could be on the way — the group has not yet filed a report with the state to say how much it has raised, nor would it volunteer the information to the Center for Public Integrity.

More has been spent on television time on that measure than any other local initiative in the nation. It’s also more expensive than more than 100 statewide measures, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of preliminary data from media tracking service Kantar Media/CMAG.

Across the country, large companies and national advocacy groups are putting big dollars behind committees with benign-sounding names that support or oppose ballot initiatives on issues as varied as minimum wage increases in Alaska and recreational marijuana in Florida.

The committees are using that money to put their message out in expensive ads featuring family farmers, concerned doctors and smiling teachers. Voters may not readily be able to identify the patrons behind the millions of dollars in ads, but a who’s who of corporate America — soda king Coca-Cola, agriculture magnate Monsanto and malpractice insurer The Doctors Company — are among them.

Through Oct. 20, TV ad spending on ballot issues totaled roughly $119 million, including $11.3 million on local initiatives such as the one in Maui County.

Four of the five most expensive ballot initiatives feature at least one corporate patron duking it out over the airwaves, getting involved in the initiative process that was designed as a way to give voters a direct voice on public policies.

· The two most expensive propositions were in California. Proposition 46 has drawn more than $23 million in ad spending, while Proposition 45 has attracted $20.5 million. Almost all of it has come from two groups: No on 45 — Californians Against Higher Healthcare Costs and No on 46 — Patients, Providers and Healthcare Insurers to Contain Health Costs. The “no” groups are backed by doctors and insurance companies, including The Doctors Company and Blue Shield of California, fighting to stop measures that would force doctors to undergo drug testing and insurers to get new approval for rate hikes, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of state campaign finance records.

· Coming in third place was a Colorado amendment to expand gambling, which has drawn about $12 million in ad spending. Of that, $6.4 million came from Coloradans for Better Schools, a group backed by a Rhode Island casino company, Twin River Casino. Competing casinos in Colorado are helping fund $5.7 million in ads opposing the measure through a group called Don’t Turn Racetracks Into Casinos.

· Ranking fourth were two California measures that have been touted as an inseparable duo: Proposition 1, which would authorize a bond issue for water infrastructure projects, and Proposition 2, which would change the state’s “rainy day fund.” Most of the $7.6 million spent on ads supporting the two measures came from California Gov. Jerry Brown. The Democrat has not run any ads for his re-election bid, instead buying $5.6 million in ads through his campaign committee to back the propositions.

· Rounding out the top five, with $5 million in ads, was an Oregon measure that would require genetically modified foods to be labeled. The No on 92 Coalition, fueled by groups such as Monsanto and the J.M. Smucker Company, is battling natural food companies funding the Vote Yes on Measure 92 committee.

Fewer but costlier initiatives

This year voters have fewer ballot measures to decide than they did four years ago, when a comparable number of offices were up for election. In 2010, voters considered 184 statewide initiatives compared with 158 this year.

Even California voters, well acquainted with lengthy ballots, have only six measures to read through this November.

But this year already has 2010 beat in terms of TV ad spending. In 2010, ballot measure backers and opponents spent about $87 million on ads for the entire election cycle, compared with this year’s $119 million through Oct. 20.

Citizens in 26 states can gather signatures and put a proposal on the ballot that would create a new law or veto an existing one. Every state but Delaware offers voters the chance to weigh in on constitutional amendments approved by the legislature. Once the initiative is approved to go before voters, the ad deluge begins.

Ballot measure opponents and supporters use a number of tools to influence voters — door-knocking, direct mail, digital advertising and more — but television spots have the highest profile influence on such direct democracy.

“TV ads are a very effective way of getting out a message,” said Daniel Smith, a University of Florida professor who has studied ballot measures for more than 20 years. Advertising can be used “devastatingly well,” he added.

But those ads — and the money behind them — aren’t necessarily a bad thing if it gets people talking, he said, even if a few of them are confusing or misleading. “Increased money usually means there is more information, more awareness of ballot measures,” he added.

Corporate titans rule the airwaves

In California, competing messages about the drug-testing-for-doctors proposition are abundant on the airwaves. Recent transplant James VanBuskirk, a 34-year-old marketer for a property insurance company, says he sees one every time he watches prime-time TV.

Prop 46 tops the ballot measure spending pile in this election, with $23 million spent on thousands of ads across California.

Consumer Watchdog, a national advocacy group, teamed up with trial lawyers to back the measure. Trial lawyers stand to benefit from Prop 46 because, in addition to testing doctors for drug use, it also increases the maximum judges can award for pain and suffering in medical malpractice lawsuits. Groups backed by them spent $3.9 million so far on ads supporting the measure.

Consumer advocates and the California Nurses Association have also thrown their money behind Proposition 45, which would require insurers to receive approval for rate hikes from the California insurance commissioner, an elected regulator. Ballot committees supporting the measure have aired more than $679,000 on ads so far.

But their messages have been crowded out by those of insurers and doctors, who are spending big to oppose both measures on the airwaves — with more than $38 million spent on ads so far, about $19 million on each measure — nearly a third of the total amount spent on ballot measure ads nationwide. And there are likely many more ads to come: Groups opposing the two measures together have raised more than $100 million, according to California campaign finance records.

“It’s definitely in the upper stratosphere of California fundraising,” said Kim Alexander, president of the California Voter Foundation, a nonpartisan nonprofit that produces online voter guides.

That doesn’t mean the insurance companies are necessarily going to win. In 2010, a group backed by Pacific Gas & Electric Co. spent almost $14 million on ads supporting a ballot measure that would require local voter approval for any new government-backed utilities. The electric company lost, even though its opponents did not buy any airtime.

Casinos versus casinos

In Colorado, casinos are waging the nation’s third-most-expensive ballot fight over the airwaves this year.

It’s casino versus casinos, according to an analysis of state campaign finance data. One Rhode Island gambling company, Twin River Casino, wants to offer slot machines, blackjack and other games at a racetrack in Aurora, Colorado. In ads, the committee backed by the company promises $100 million of new gambling revenue will be sent to an education fund every year. The ads have run more than 5,500 times, at a cost of about $6.4 million.

But already established gambling operations in Colorado that don’t want more competition have backed a group that has kept pace, spending $5.7 million on ads opposing the measure. “Amendment 68 is not about education. It’s a Rhode Island gambling scheme,” one opposition ad says.

Most Coloradans likely have no idea that casinos are backing the ads on both sides, said Kyle Saunders, associate professor of political science at Colorado State University. Colorado has clear-cut competitive U.S. Senate and gubernatorial races, he said, while ballot-measure backers are “muddying the issues.”

“It’s a difficult environment for voters to know everything about a particular ballot measure anyway, in a normal election,” Saunders said. “You have to actually do some digging or find that article on the Internet or newspaper that has that in-depth information, and that’s actually a pretty demanding task for low- and medium-information voters.”

Gambling is also on the ballot in Massachusetts, with a casino-backed group spending about $3.3 million on ads.

In total, gambling-based ballot measures are responsible for $17.5 million in ad spending nationwide.

Food industry food fight

Even soda is getting in on the political ad contests. The American Beverage Association, whose members include Coca-Cola and Pepsi, has pumped millions into a group opposing a Massachusetts ballot measure that would raise fees for beverage distributors and expand the state’s bottle deposit to cover more types of bottles. The beverage lobby-backed group has spent about $2.5 million on TV ads, while pro-initiative forces have not bought any airtime.

The California branch of the beverage-makers group has also backed a group trying to defeat a local initiative in San Francisco that would tax sugary drinks; so far the group has spent $1.8 million on ads, making the measure the second-most expensive local measure in terms of television spots, behind Maui’s initiative.

Coca-Cola and Pepsi are also teaming up with other big food businesses like Monsanto and the Hershey Company in their effort to keep Oregon and Colorado from requiring labels on food that contains genetically modified organisms. Groups backed by the team of food companies have spent about $3 million on ads in each state, arguing that the measures would raise food prices and hurt farmers.

“Farming is hard enough. The last thing we need is Measure 92, a bunch of complex, costly regulations that don’t exist in any other state,” says a plaid-shirt-wearing farmer in an ad opposing the Oregon measure.

Proponents of labeling in Oregon, backed by natural food companies, have spent $2 million on television ads in the state. “I want you to be able to trust the food you feed your family,” says another plaid-shirt-wearing farmer, who favors the measure. Proponents in Colorado have not aired ads.

Winning hearts

Corporations aren’t the only big players in state ballot measures this year. National advocacy groups are also tugging at heartstrings on the airwaves.

Planned Parenthood and the ACLU have teamed up to oppose anti-abortion measures in Tennessee and Colorado. In Tennessee, a group backed by the pair has spent about $1.3 million on TV ads against a measure that would give the legislature more leeway to regulate abortion. Proponents of the measure, backed by Tennessee Right to Life, have spent about $606,000 on ads.

In Colorado, a Planned Parenthood-backed group has spent $477,000 on the airwaves to oppose an amendment to the state constitution that would redefine “person” to include the unborn. The ads say the move would effectively ban all abortion in the state. Proponents have aired no ads.

Other initiatives attracting interest from advocacy groups include:

· In Washington, television viewers have already been treated to more than 4,000 ads about a pair of conflicting ballot measures concerning background checks for gun purchases, with most of them coming from a group supporting expanded background checks. That organization — backed by Michael Bloomberg’s Everytown for Gun Safety fund, early Amazon investor Nick Hanauer and a handful of Microsoft executives, according to state records — spent an estimated $3 million on ads. The other side, backed by gun enthusiasts and sporting clubs, is trailing behind, with only about $58,000 spent.

· In North Dakota, the Nature Conservancy and the Audubon Society, among others, have lent their support to a measure that would dedicate some of the state’s oil tax revenues to land preservation. North Dakotans for Clean Water, Wildlife and Parks has ponied up nearly $485,400 for ads—more than double the cost for all the ads run by candidates for state offices this year. The group’s opponents have spent about $134,000 on ads so far.

· In Maine, voters are considering a ballot measure that would ban traps, bait and dog chases in bear hunting. The Humane Society has backed a group that has spent about $860,000 on ads favoring the ban so far. The other side, Maine’s Fish & Wildlife Conservation Council, has spent about $713,000 on ads.

Attracting voters with pot and money

Marijuana is on the ballot in the District of Columbia and three states, spurring $4.5 million in ads. In Oregon, voters have watched some 1,825 ads worth more than $1 million run by supporters of legalizing recreational marijuana. That effort’s backers include the family of Peter Lewis, a longtime marijuana legalization advocate from Ohio and chairman of Progressive Insurance, who died in 2013. Another backer is the Drug Policy Alliance, an anti-drug-war nonprofit backed by liberal financier George Soros. (Soros’ Open Society Foundations are a financial supporter of the Center.)

The ads argue that legalizing the drug will allow police to focus on solving murders and finding missing children. Opponents have aired no ads so far, but a similar measure failed in Oregon in 2012. In Alaska, supporters of marijuana have aired just $8,210 worth of ads.

In Florida, opponents of a ballot measure to legalize medical marijuana have spent roughly $3.2 million on ads. But the players in that fight might care less about marijuana than the governor’s race. Analysts say the marijuana legalization effort in Florida is really a tactic to get more young and left-leaning residents to turn out and vote for the Democratic gubernatorial candidate, former Gov. Charlie Crist.

Billionaire casino operator Sheldon Adelson has given $4 million to the anti-pot campaign, while the pro-pot side is backed more than $3.8 million from the personal injury lawyer John Morgan and his firm, which hired Crist after he left office. So far, however, the marijuana advocates have only spent about $195,000 on TV ads, according to Kantar Media/CMAG data.

Ballot measures are a reliable way to motivate a party’s base. For instance, liberal groups helped get measures to raise the minimum wage on five states’ ballots this fall. Yet only Nebraska’s appears to have drawn TV ads: a paltry $79,000 worth.

“That totally makes sense,” said Neil Sroka, a strategist for progressive groups and the communications director at the Howard Dean-founded Democracy for America. “I wouldn’t count the lack of spending on ads to be indicative that they’re not incredibly useful in driving out votes.”

Sroka told the Associated Press that polls show overwhelming support for raising the minimum wage, including among independents and Republicans. Liberal activists looking to motivate voters can use the minimum-wage measures as a way to get perhaps reluctant voters talking and then tell them that the Democratic nominees for office also support higher wages.

“These ballot measures are great ways to talk to voters who might not want to talk to Democrats,” Sroka said.

Money talks but does it win?

For some corporations and national advocacy groups, investments in ballot measure ads have already paid off. This summer, oil companies won an August vote after dishing out nearly $900,000 to buy about 8,000 TV spots in Alaska to keep special tax breaks. “We need to stay in the game,” said a hockey coach in an ad that likened the sport to the oil industry.

In Michigan, manufacturers almost hit the $2.8 million mark on ad spending for an August ballot measure designed to eliminate a double tax on industrial property, while also rerouting an existing tax to fund local budgets. Though observers worried the measure was too confusing for pessimistic Michigan voters, who turned down every single initiative on the ballot in 2012, the manufacturers walked away with a victory.

But for others, ad spending was for naught. In Missouri, construction companies spent about $1.2 million on TV ads but still lost an August vote that would have authorized a sales tax to fund road construction.

The bulk of the measures, though, will come before voters on Nov. 4, so a flood of advertising is on the horizon. Then the implications of voters’ decisions will begin, affecting individuals’ lives and companies’ bottom lines.

In Hawaii, approval of the Maui County GMO ban would be a blow to Monsanto, which can produce up to four crops of corn seeds a year in Hawaii’s lush environment.

The state’s seed industry, including Monsanto’s corn, has grown rapidly in recent years, and last growing season was worth $217 million, outpacing sugar cane and pineapples. The corporate-backed Citizens Against the Maui County Farming Ban argues that small farms and big alike would be hurt by the ballot’s ban.

“More than 600 people would lose their jobs,” the group’s spokesman, Tom Blackburn-Rodriguez, said in an email. “The purpose of the TV ads is to educate voters about the flawed, costly and harmful initiative.”

Natural remedies nurse Marsh doesn’t know whether her side can beat the Monsanto-backed ads; she said fliers against the GMO ban show up in her mailbox every day. But the ban advocates have a great volunteer network, she said, and at the very least they’ll get to make themselves heard. “We’re just trying to make them be held responsible for what they’re doing,” she said.

Associated Press reporter Philip Elliott contributed.

Correction: The original version of this story misstated the amount Sustainable Hawaiian Agriculture for the Keiki and the ‘Aina has raised to back the ballot measure banning GMO farming. It was about $76,000.

TIME 2014 Election

GOP Wields Romney Fundraising List in Senate Battle

A potent tool for raising cash

If Republicans retake the Senate next month, they’ll have done it with a lot of help from Mitt Romney.

The former GOP presidential nominee’s digital operation may have been a generation behind President Barack Obama’s effort, but his email list has proven to be a potent fundraising too for the party as it looks for victory this fall. “It’s easily our most successful digital fundraising source,” said Matt Lira. executive director of the Senate Republicans’ campaign arm. “As far as our fundraising is concerned, there’s the Romney list and there’s everything else.”

In the past week, the National Republican Senatorial Committee has emailed the list no fewer than 16 times, many times with emails addressed from Romney himself, while the National Republican Congressional Committee, House Republican’s campaign arm, has used it at least once.

Maintained in a nondescript office overlooking the Potomac River in Alexandria by his former digital consulting firm Targeted Victory, the list is one of the Republican Party’s most valuable assets, containing millions of email addresses and records of more than 1.5 million digital donors to that campaign. “This is the largest donor base in the history of politics on the right,” said Zac Moffatt, a co-founder of the firm and the former Romney campaign’s digital director.

Moffatt’s firm maintains day-to-day control of the list and takes a cut of the fundraising proceeds and list maintenance fees, according to people familiar with the arrangement. The firm, which has been paid millions by the NRSC for its digital fundraising work, transferred more than $100,000 into Romney’s campaign account in June for the rights to use the list.

“Governor Romney is excited that Republican candidates and committees are making use of the Romney for President email list for fundraising and [get-out-the-vote purposes this cycle,” said Romney aide Kelli Harrison. “Hopefully access to this tool will make a difference in races all across the country.”

The value is clear, Lira said. “It’s the largest list of people who are predisposed to donate, predisposed to volunteer, predisposed to vote Republican,” he said. “The Romney donor base is broader, compared to some more ideological lists.” When donors give through the Romney list, it both freshens the underlying list and provides the NRSC with a new contact for its internal lists.

Renters have the option of reaching out to the entire universe of donors, or just segments, like those who purchased merchandise or participated in contests on the Romney campaign, in hopes of generating greater return on investment.

In 2012, the Romney campaign, flush with cash, rented almost every GOP email list available so it could build its own list of contacts and donors, making it the most comprehensive collection of GOP emails, outstripping even the Republican National Committee according to industry sources.

“Email is king to online fundraising,” said Vincent Harris, whose firm Harris Media works for clients like Republican Sens. Ted Cruz and Mitch McConnell. He added the Targeted Victory arrangement “brings about a big point that candidates don’t think of: who owns their data?”

Lira declined to say how much the NRSC has raised off the Romney list; the committee has been massively outraised by its Democratic counterpart.

The Romney approach differs from that used by Obama, whose campaign also maintains control of the his small-dollar donor and volunteer lists for the use of Organizing for Action, the nonprofit issue advocacy group he has thrown his name behind. Obama transferred his data and other lists to the Democratic National Committee.

While the Romney list remains fresh, don’t look to it as evidence that the two-time White House hopeful will make a third bid. The list has also been used by potential 2016 candidates like Marco Rubio, Paul Ryan, and Rick Perry.

TIME Campaign Finance

FEC Clears Doubling of Donations With Convention Ruling

US Campaign 2012
The Republican National Convention at the Tampa Bay Times Forum on August 30, 2012 in Tampa, Florida. Charles Ommanney—Getty Images

Separate convention funding will allow parties to tap as much as $250,000 per donor every four years

Four weeks before the midterm elections, the Democratic and Republican Parties set aside their political differences to celebrate a development they could both agree on: raising more money.

The rare bout of bipartisanship follows a Federal Election Commission decision to allow the parties to raise extra cash to put on their increasingly irrelevant quadrennial prime time love-fests: the presidential nominating conventions.

Congress decided earlier this year to strip each party’s convention of public financing—$18,248,300 a piece in 2012—in hopes of diverting the funds to fund pediatric medical research.

As a result, the committees faced the prospect of funding the conventions from their existing “hard money” accounts, taking dollars out of field campaigns or television advertisements to pay the expensive three- or four-day long events.

To get around that problem, the parties jointly asked the FEC to let them set up separate committees to raise funds and pay for the conventions.

Last week the FEC’s attorneys prepared dueling opinions for the commission to vote on. One argued that the separate convention committees would be arms of the party and should be subject to the same limit. That opinion lost. The other argued the parties should be allowed to have a separate limit. Democratic Vice Chair Ann Ravel joined commission Republicans to pass that option by a 4-2 decision.

The result was a big win for both parties. Instead of tapping core budgets, which are built on maximum donations of $32,400 per donor annually and fund nearly everything the party does, the parties can double dip, raising another $32,400 from the same donors, just for the convention.

Campaign finance reform advocates blasted the outcome Thursday, noting that individuals can now cumulatively donate over $250,000 to the RNC or DNC each presidential cycle. “This is a disgraceful and activist decision that ignores the laws passed by Congress to combat corruption,” said Larry Noble of the Campaign Legal Center in a statement. “One has come to expect such efforts to dismantle the current contribution limits brick by brick from the current Republican Commissioners, but Vice Chair Ravel’s vote to give the national party committees a new way to tap wealthy donors is incredibly disappointing and irresponsible.”

The Campaign Legal Center warned in comments submitted before the meeting that it could lead to a slippery slope where different party functions are broken off into separate accounts with their own contribution limits, subverting longstanding laws designed to limit the amount of money in the nation’s political system. (The Republican National Committee has filed suit to lift those individual contribution limit to national parties.)

The RNC and DNC celebrated the ruling as “an important, if modest, first step for the parties in continuing to meet their historic responsibility to conduct conventions, which play such a vital role in our democratic process.” But in recent decades the carefully-scripted conventions have become increasingly irrelevant to the political process, as nominees lock up the required delegates well before the gatherings and the party platforms are frequently ignored by candidates for president on down. And while they are opportunities for each party to promote its message on television for a week in prime time, viewership is down and they rarely move the polling dial to lasting effect. Indeed, nominating conventions have become little more than expensive opportunities to reward party insiders with swanky parties and access to political figures.

In fact, the new convention funds are separate from the tens of millions raised by both parties’ “host committees” which are exempt from FEC contribution limits and accept millions in corporate and individual donations. The FEC justifies this separate fund arguing that the host committees are primarily engaged in promoting the cities in which the convention is held, not nominating the party’s presidential candidate. But that distinction is tenuous, at best, particularly when the party’s candidate is asked to step in to help close a shortfall, as Mitt Romney was asked to do in Tampa in 2012. Not to mention longstanding research showing that conventions don’t actually boost the economic development of the host cities.

President Barack Obama’s 2012 host committee secured a loan from Duke Energy that was later forgiven by the Charlotte, NC-based energy company, skirting the candidate’s pledge not to accept corporate funds.

“We appreciate the FEC’s recognition that, as the party convention committees adjust to the loss of public funding, they have authority to raise funds that will help pay the costs of their national conventions,” both parties said in their unusual joint statement.

TIME Campaign Finance

Ginsburg Says Citizens United Was Supreme Court’s Worst Ruling

"I think the notion that we have all the democracy that money can buy strays so far from what our democracy is supposed to be"

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg says in a new interview that the Citizens United ruling paving the way for more unfettered campaign spending by corporations was the current court’s worst decision ever.

Ginsburg told The New Republic that she would overturn the 2010 ruling if she could.

I think the notion that we have all the democracy that money can buy strays so far from what our democracy is supposed to be,” she said. “I think members of the legislature, people who have to run for office, know the connection between money and influence on what laws get passed.”

She also expressed concern that modern feminists take their rights for granted.

“The women of my generation and my daughter’s generation, they were very active in moving along the social change that would result in equal citizenship stature for men and women,” Ginsburg said. “One thing that concerns me is that today’s young women don’t seem to care that we have a fundamental instrument of government that makes no express statement about the equal citizenship stature of men and women. They know there are no closed doors anymore, and they may take for granted the rights that they have.

Read the full interview at The New Republic

TIME Campaign Finance

Larry Lessig Compares America’s Democracy to Hong Kong’s

Larry Lessig speaks at the Nantucket project on September 26, 2014. Meghan Brosnan

Lessig is building the "Super PAC to end all Super PACs"

Harvard Professor and liberal activist Larry Lessig continued a tour promoting his Mayday PAC at the Nantucket Project on Friday, suggesting America’s democracy is about as open and fair as that of Hong Kong.

Lessig is creating what he calls “the super PAC to end super PACs,” and hopes to raise millions of dollars to promote eight pro-campaign finance reform candidates (five announced, three still to come) in this year’s midterm elections.

Lessig compared the current state of voting in America to Hong Kong, where students have been protesting a new policy that will allow a small fraction of the population to choose the primary candidates in elections, after which point the general population will be able to vote. In other words, as Lessig put it, “it’s a two-stage process with a filter at the first stage.” The same was true, he says, in the American South after the Civil War, when black citizens could technically vote—but not until after the white primaries determined their options.

American democracy is controlled by a tiny minority of moneyed funders, Lessig believes, much as New York politics were controlled by political bosses during the 19th century. He likened Super PACs’ impact on Congress to that of Boss Tweed, the nineteenth-century New York senator who said he doesn’t “care who does the electing as long as I get to do the nominating.”

Lessig maintains that this is the same situation we find ourselves in today, pointing out that in 2012, 60% of Super PAC money came from just 132 donors.

To address major problems the country faces, such as environmental and tax reform, Lessig says reformers have to start with campaign finance, comparing the problem to alcoholism. “A guy could be losing his kidney, his liver and his wife, but he is not going to address any of those problems until he addresses his alcoholism.”

A people-funded Super PAC like Mayday, Lessig hopes, will work to elect a Congress dedicated to public funding of elections, thereby eliminating the power of Super PACs. Lessig says it will take fair-minded lawmakers from both parties to make publicly-funded elections a reality. Of the five candidates Lessig’s Mayday PAC is backing so far, three are Democrats, while two are Republicans. Of one, Rep. Walter Jones (R—N.C.), Lessig says, “He has lots of views that I find—I’m supposed to be polite here, right?—I find I don’t agree with. But Walter Jones has co-sponsored public funding of elections.”

And for Mayday, that’s all that matters.

TIME 2014 Election

Senate Democrats Leading TV Ad Blitz As Election Approaches

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee aired more TV ads in key Senate races last week than any other group

This story was published by The Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit, nonpartisan investigative news organization in Washington, D.C.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee ruled the TV airwaves last week, even trumping the conservative super PACs and Koch brothers-backed nonprofits they’ve accused of trying to buy elections.

The DSCC—an official arm of the Democratic Party—aired about 3,800 ads in U.S. Senate races across eight states, according to a new Center for Public Integrity analysis of preliminary estimates provided by Kantar Media/CMAG, an advertising tracking service.

That was more than double the number of ads run by its GOP counterpart, the National Republican Senatorial Committee, from Tuesday, Sept. 16, through Monday, Sept. 22.

Such dominance isn’t shocking against the backdrop of Senate Republicans’ fundraising hiccups: the NRSC ended August with about $5 million less in the bank than the DSCC, according to the groups’ most recent campaign finance filings

“It’s critical that the DSCC use our sizable fundraising advantage over the NRSC to help bridge the gap and stop the Kochs from buying the U.S. Senate,” said DSCC spokesman Justin Barasky, referring to the conservative billionaires Charles and David Koch whose political network has also been a major player in competitive Senate races.

NRSC spokeswoman Brook Hougesen did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but numerous recent fundraising pleas from the group have bemoaned the Democrats’ financial advantage.

“The midterm environment is toxic for Democrats, yet there’s a chance Republicans may not take the Senate,” wrote GOP strategist Karl Rove in a fundraising message for the NRSC on Wednesday. “Why? The Democrats have a huge money advantage.”

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., struck a similar tone in a separate recent email: “If we are unable to close the fundraising gap, Republicans risk being outspent 3-to-1, 5-to-1, even 6-to-1 in several key battleground races.”

Despite the sheer volume of ads the DSCC produced last week, the party committee only once — in Iowa — ranked as the top spender in a Senate race.

There, it essentially tied with GOP super PAC American Crossroads, a group co-founded by Rove after the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision in 2010.

Both American Crossroads and the DSCC aired about 1,000 TV ads each in Iowa, according to estimates from Kantar Media/CMAG — or about one ad every 10 minutes. Republican Joni Ernst and Democrat Bruce Braley are locked in a bitter battle to replace long-serving Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin, who’s retiring.

Overall, more than 33,000 TV ads aired in the nine most competitive U.S. Senate races from Sept. 16 through Sept. 22, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of preliminary estimates from Kantar Media/CMAG. Democratic candidates and their allies were responsible for 52 percent of them.

Democratic candidates themselves aired more TV ads than any other spender last week in the Senate races underway in Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana and North Carolina, according to Kantar Media/CMAG.

The campaigns of Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., and Alison Lundergan Grimes — the Democrat challenging McConnell in Kentucky — each aired about 1,200 TV ads last week. That’s one ad about one ad every nine minutes.

In Louisiana, Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu’s campaign sponsored about 1,300 TV ads last week — or about one ad every eight minutes.

And in Arkansas, Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor’s campaign aired about 600 TV ads — or about one ad every 17 minutes.

In both Alaska and Georgia, meanwhile, the top Democratic ad producers were neck-and-neck with Republican spenders. For the battleground states of Colorado and Michigan, the top sponsors of ads last week were independent groups — not a candidate or an official party committee.

In Colorado, Crossroads GPS, the nonprofit sibling of super PAC American Crossroads, ranked as the No. 1 spender, airing about 1,000 ads last week.

And in Michigan, that distinction belonged to NextGen Climate Action, the super PAC supported by billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer. It aired more than 1,400 ads last week supporting Democrat Gary Peters over Republican Terri Lynn Land in an open race to replace retiring Democratic Sen. Carl Levin.

With less than six weeks until Election Day — and early voting already underway in a handful of states — both Democrats and Republicans are working full bore to rally supporters and win over undecided voters.

“Both sides really are doing whatever it takes,” said Johanna Dunaway, a professor of political science at Louisiana State University. “We are seeing tons and tons of ads.”

Republicans need to pick up six seats in November to win a Senate majority.

Since January 2013, more than 400,000 ads have aired in the nine most competitive Senate races across the country, according to Kantar Media/CMAG.

Conservatives and liberals have each accounted for roughly half.

Politics investigations in your inbox: Sign up for the Center for Public Integrity’s Watchdog email.

Related: Who’s buying the Senate?

More stories in the Buying the Senate 2014 investigation from the Center for Public Integrity

 

TIME Campaign Finance

Labor Giant to Battle GOP With ‘Koch Sisters’ Campaign

The umbrella union organization AFL-CIO is introducing a new spot featuring "sisters" Karen and Joyce Koch, to shine a light on how politics is funded

The largest labor federation in America is rolling out a new ad campaign highlighting the perceived political might of the conservative billionaire Koch brothers, featuring their own pair of Kochs.

The umbrella union organization AFL-CIO introduced Thursday Karen and Joyce Koch, two women who aren’t biologically related to each other or Charles and David Koch, the billionaire industrialists and conservative donors painted by some Democrats and liberal groups as sinister moneymen dictating the Republican agenda. Karen and Joyce, says the ad, are “sisters in spirit” who “aren’t trying to buy up our democracy.”

In a phone call with reporters Thursday morning, Eric Hauser, the AFL-CIO communications director, said the Koch Sister campaign would “expose the destructiveness of unchecked money in politics generally, and the Koch brothers specifically, and elevate the values that Joyce and Karen and millions and tens of millions of working people feel very deeply for themselves, their families, their communities and the country.”

The AFL-CIO is asking supporters to sign up to become a Koch “sister” themselves. Signees will receive updates and briefings from the AFL-CIO and will possibly be able to sign up for unspecified contests. It’s “more of a value statement than anything else,” Hauser said. “I intend to become one right after this call.”

The 30-second “Meet the Koch Sisters!” spot will air on CNN and MSNBC in Lansing, Mich. and Lexington, Ky. through the end of the next week “at a minimum,” according Hauser. The ad will also run on broadcast news stations in Washington, DC.

Hauser said that the “driving factor” why the ads will run in Michigan is Karen, who works as a volunteer for Michigan Democratic Senate candidate Gary Peters and gubernatorial candidate Mark Schauer. The Kentucky airtime purchase could influence voters in the Senate race between Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and his Democratic challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes, which is widely expected to be the most expensive this cycle.

TIME 2014 Election

Secret Koch Event Audio Could Be Gift for Senate Democrats

Koch Brothers Protest
Members of the "Save Our News'' coalition rally before delivering a 500,000-signature petition urging the Tribune Co. management to reject any offers by the Koch Brothers to buy The Los Angeles Times newspaper outside the newspaper headquarters in Los Angeles on May 29, 2013. Damian Dovarganes—AP

It's not what Republican candidates said that has Democrats salivating, but who they said it to

There was little revealed in the new, illicitly recorded audio tapes of top Senate Republican candidates addressing a group of high-dollar Republican donors, but their very existence may give Democrats a needed boost going into the fall’s midterm elections.

On Tuesday, The Nation released audio of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell addressing a June meeting in Dana Point, Calif. convened by the Koch Brothers, the billionaire energy magnates who have become Democratic bogeymen this fall. Early Wednesday, the Huffington Post followed with audio from a trio of Senate hopefuls: Iowa state Sen. Joni Ernst and Arkansas Rep. Tom Cotton, and Colorado Rep. Cory Gardner.

The muffled surreptitiously-recorded audio from the closed-door summit is hard to make out, not that it matters. McConnell repeated his longstanding opposition to campaign finance restrictions. Ernst and Cotton thanked the donors at the confab for their support. Gardner not-so-subtly suggested that their outside money efforts would decide his fate. None of this is news to anyone, but the optics of the candidates appearing to kowtow to the Kochs is enough to send Democrats into overdrive.

For months Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, and an array of outside groups have tried to turn the Koch brothers into household names. “Republicans are addicted to Koch,” Reid declared in March on the Senate floor. The DSCC, which owns kochaddiction.com has placed the the billionaires at the center of their midterm messaging, arguing GOP candidates are beholden to the donors at the expense of their states. Meanwhile, Senate Majority PAC, funded by the Democrats’ own high-dollar donors, is blasting GOP candidates on the air for their ties to the Kochs.

The Democratic message has long had two aims: drive up Democratic fundraising, while turning swing voters away from Republican candidates. On the first front, the effort has clearly been successful. Senate Democrats maintain a strong fundraising advantage over Republicans, while their outside efforts have progressed mightily since 2010. Meanwhile, Democratic Senate candidates have managed to maintain polling advantages as the fall campaign heats up.

“It makes it much harder for them to try to hide their agenda,” said DSCC spokesman Justin Barasky. “Stuff like this audio recording helps tie them to their records.”

Barasky wouldn’t preview the virtually guaranteed onslaught of ads to incorporate the latest audio. “I would say that Democrats will continue to tie GOP senate candidates to the highly damaging Koch brothers agenda that they’re all pushing,” he said.

McConnell’s team tried to turn lemons into lemonade, touting the fact that he said the same thing behind closed doors as he does in public. “In contrast to Alison Lundergan Grimes’ failure to defend Kentucky coal from the EPA behind closed doors with Obama donors, Senator McConnell fights for Kentucky wherever he goes. Earlier this summer Grimes failed to utter a word of support after promising Kentuckians she would defend Kentucky coal at a Harry Reid fundraiser and lord knows what she said to Tom Steyer and anti-coal billionaires when she attended their conference in Chicago,” said McConnell spokeswoman Allison Moore.

Brook Hougesen, a spokeswoman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee said the Democratic attacks are “blatantly hypocritical.” “Harry Reid’s Majority PAC and other Democratic outside groups are outspending Republicans by millions including Put Alaska First – a front group for Reid’s PAC in Alaska where Democrats have poured in more than $5 million in a desperate attempt to save Mark Begich,” she said. “The reality is while Democrats are distracting themselves with their contrived baseless attacks that don’t resonate with voters, Republicans are talking about their solutions and reminding folks that a vote for Democrats like Mark Begich, Mark Udall and Kay Hagan are votes are Harry Reid and Barack Obama’s failed agenda.”

Both audio records were posted by The Undercurrent, a self-described “grassroots political web-show” hosted by Lauren Windsor. The show is affiliated with the progressive Young Turks Internet network, and sponsored by the progressive nonprofit group, American Family Voices. The method of the recording has not been disclosed.

Your browser, Internet Explorer 8 or below, is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites.

Learn how to update your browser