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The Pennsylvania Special Election Exposed a Big Flaw in GOP Campaign Spending

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Republicans and Democrats are employing very different fundraising strategies ahead of the midterm elections, but the results of a special election in Pennsylvania show the GOP strategy may have some drawbacks.

As in other races, a higher amount of Democratic dollars went straight to candidate Conor Lamb, while more Republican money went to outside groups backing state Rep. Rick Saccone. Lamb’s official campaign committee outraised Saccone’s 3 to 1, according to Issue One, a non-partisan group that tracks spending in politics. But outside groups backing Saccone outspent outside groups backing Lamb 6 to 1.

But the outside money did not seem to work in Pennsylvania, where Lamb currently leads by around 700 votes in a district that went heavily for President Donald Trump less than two years ago. Although Lamb and the Democratic party has claimed victory, the Associated Press says the race is still close to call.

Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks money in politics, said outside spending is not a reliable indicator of how an election will go, because it doesn’t necessarily translate into votes since the biggest donors often hail from outside the voting conclaves.

“Outside groups can spend any money they want but the question is at the end of the day are voters still open to their messages or whether they’ve already made up their minds,” said Krumholz, “The outside groups are not going to be ones the pulling the lever to cast a vote.”

The fundraising and spending patterns of both parties in these races mimicked what seems to be happening on a broader stage across the country. Democratic dollars have primarily gone to the candidate’s coffers, while Republican money went to outside groups. Lamb out-raised Saccone by $3 million, FEC documents show. While he had raised nearly $3.9 million by February 21, Saccone had raised nearly $920,000. And Lamb had the advantage when it came to small donors. Over half of Lamb’s total individual contributions were unitemized, or less than $200, in comparison with 24 percent of Saccone’s. Lamb also declined to accept money from corporate Political Action Committees.

But Republicans had investments from some of the party’s biggest donors who had contributed to party committees and outside spending groups, and they went all in. Per FEC filings, conservative groups and committees, including the National Republican Congressional Committee, the Congressional Leadership Fund, the Republican National Committee and America First Action Super PAC spent over $9 million in the election. Although the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee invested over $1 million in the race, that spending was dwarfed by the conservative groups. And this was all for a race in a district that won’t even exist in November, since the State Supreme Court order that the map be redrawn.

Republicans’ financial advantage in this arena, contrasted with Democrats’ investment in individual candidates, is not surprising. As of last month, the RNC had $38.8 million in cash on hand, while the Democratic National Committee had $423,000, and was saddled with $6.1 million in debt. But in the final quarter of 2017, over 40 Democratic challengers out-raised more than 30 House incumbents, according to figures from the Federal Election Commission touted by the DCCC.

But experts say the results in PA-18 reveal how this spending strategy could preview a problem for the upcoming midterm elections this fall. Independent groups have to spend more money airing television ads, since FCC regulations give candidates the lowest rates to run an ad. And, as Krumholz noted, it is always more likely that the contributors powering the candidates, particularly in House races, are actual voters, than the big name donors financing these outside groups.

“There’s no question that Republicans will always have more outside money than Democrats do,” said Josh Schwerin, Communications Director at Priorities USA, an advocacy group which has a Super PAC arm that invests in Democratic candidate. It did not invest in Pennsylvania’s election. “If you look across the playing field, especially in the House, Democrats are outraising Republicans and sitting Congressmen .. what we saw in PA-18 and will be likely replicated across the country in a November is that every dollar a candidate spends goes further than a dollar the outside group spends.

A Republican operative with one of the outside groups had similar sentiments. “Outside groups have strong value and are able to get candidates over the finish line, but we’re not able to subsidize these campaigns,” said the operative. “Absent critical spending, [outside groups] can only do so much.”

It appears that GOP groups may be realizing the extent of this problem. Steve Law, President and CEO of the Senate Leadership Fund, told the Washington Post his Super Pac is amping up efforts to encourage donors to contribute directly to candidates. And Rep. Steve Stivers, chairman of the NRCC, urged his colleagues to up their campaigning games in a closed door meeting Wednesday.

“This is a wake-up call,” said Stivers. “Bear down.”

—Philip Elliott contributed reporting.

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Write to Alana Abramson at Alana.Abramson@time.com