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Why outside groups are pouring record amounts of money into this year’s midterm elections

April 16, 2014 at 6:07 PM EDT
Organizations not officially linked to 2014 midterm election candidates have been spending record levels on campaigns. So far, more money has been spent overall than in the entire 2000 presidential election. To make sense of these numbers, Judy Woodruff talks to Sheila Krumholz of the Center for Responsive Politics and David Keating of the Center for Competitive Politics.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Last night was the deadline for political candidates, parties and some outside groups to report how much money they have raised and spent in the first three months of this election year. One thing is clear: Organizations not officially linked to the candidates are spending at record levels.

Combined, these outside groups have poured in more than $57 million so far this cycle. That outpaces any election in American history at this calendar date, except the 2012 presidential election, which came on the heels of the Supreme Court ruling prohibiting restrictions on spending.

Now, a quarter of all this year’s money has been spent in just six states, where some of the key Senate races are playing out. Overall, more money has been spent already in this election than the entire 2000 presidential election, and the races have barely just begun.

And here to talk about what all this means is Sheila Krumholz. She’s the executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics. It’s a research group that tracks money in U.S. politics. And David Keating, he’s the president of the Center for Competitive Politics. It’s a nonprofit organization that promotes deregulation of campaign finance.

And we welcome you both.

SHEILA KRUMHOLZ, Center for Responsive Politics: Thank you.

DAVID KEATING, Center for Competitive Politics: Good to be here.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Sheila Krumholz, as we just reported, a lot of money is being spent by these outside groups in this cycle. And we have a graphic now that I want to show that breaks down some of the totals, liberals, $29.5 million in this pie chart. You see conservative groups $24.3 million.

Who are some of these groups, some examples of liberals and conservative groups?

SHEILA KRUMHOLZ: Well, on the liberal side, in the prior cycle, the most active group was Priorities USA and Priorities USA Action. Others are Patriot Majority, Citizens for Strength and Security.

On the conservative side, the — perhaps one of the most prominent and strongest at this point in the cycle is Americans for Prosperity, along with Freedom Partners, American Encore, 60 Plus Association, and on and on.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And they all have very patriotic-sounding names. And is it always known who is bankrolling these groups?

SHEILA KRUMHOLZ: It is usually not known who is bankrolling the tax-exempt 501(c)(4), (c)(6) organizations, which can be active now, following Citizens United, in raising and spending money, purportedly independently of the campaign, to affect the outcome of those elections.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Sheila Krumholz, how often are these groups required to disclose? I think we have another graphic that is going to show folks the biggest spending, I guess Democratic political action, the Senate Majority PAC, and then group you just mentioned, Americans for Prosperity, $30 million vs. $8.3 million.

Those are two different kinds of groups, but it gives you an idea of the amounts that are spent. What more does this tell us about what these groups are doing?

SHEILA KRUMHOLZ: Well, we do see the disclosure of the super PACs, which are independent expenditure-only committee. So, we can see where the money is coming from and how it is being spent on ads and other advocacy for and against candidacies.

But these outside politically active nonprofits that have great latitude now following the Citizens United decision allows them to perform many of the same kinds of activities, but under a veil of secrecy, so we really can’t track the flow of money easily.

JUDY WOODRUFF: David Keating, what do we know about how these outside groups spend their money vs. how the candidates and the political action committees, which are pretty much public because they have to report more regularly?

DAVID KEATING: Well, we have to keep in mind, first of all, whenever a group advocates the election or defeat of a candidate, they have to report within hours if it’s over $10,000.

JUDY WOODRUFF: If they name the candidate.

DAVID KEATING: Right, how much they have spent.

And even if they don’t endorse a candidate, if it’s within a certain amount of time before an election, 60 days before a general or 30 days before a primary, they have to report how much they spent. So, we always know how much is spent in that context.

But we also have to keep in mind this is a year when Congress is in session. There are bills before Congress, and a lot of these calculations are counting bills that are advocating strictly on issues, should Obamacare be repealed, reformed, something like that. And lot of groups are counting that as trying to influence the election, but it’s trying to influence the debate also about where our government should be headed.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, this is more than just focused on what happens in November, although clearly that is a big part of it?

DAVID KEATING: It’s all related, obviously. You want the people who are now running for office to take positions. You have groups spending money on global warming issues, tax issues, abortion issues, as we just heard in the previous segment on the court ruling. There’s lots of contentious things this year.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Sheila Krumholz, any — have you seen any effects so far from the most recent Supreme Court ruling, the McCutcheon ruling, saying that they are no limits on the aggregate total amount big donors can give?

SHEILA KRUMHOLZ: It’s too early for us to see what impact the ruling has had on fund-raising, but we did hear that fund-raisers were on the horn immediately following that decision to those largest donors who had maxed out in a prior cycle to ask for additional funds now that they had the ability to give yet more.

It’s a big plus for the party committees and for candidates who are trying to break through and challenge the incumbents. One of the problems in a lot of these campaign finance laws is that it makes it difficult for challengers to raise the kind of money they need to take on the incumbents who have the name I.D. and the perks of office.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you’re saying that it gives the challengers a leg up?

DAVID KEATING: Yes, it gives them — well, less restraint than they had before.

DAVID KEATING: The party committees also I think will be a bigger factor in this election cycle than they were in the last cycle.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How do both of you — and, Sheila, to you first — how do you see this as healthy or not for democracy to have this much money in politics and money that isn’t all reported? We don’t know in the case of some of these outside groups who the donors are, or we don’t know or may not know for awhile how the money is being spent.

SHEILA KRUMHOLZ: I think most people logically want and expect the parties to play a role in politics and to support their candidates.

And so with this ruling, they’re able to claw back some of the money that had previously been going to the independent outside organizations. And so I think that is arguably a positive step.

On the other hand, it returns us effectively to the days of soft money, where the parties are now courting the very elite top donors, who were already influential, to ask for yet more money and the question is, what will they return? What IOUs will be extended to those large donors?

There have been donor reward programs in past years, and so one wonders whether we’re returning to that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is there a danger, David Keating, about…

DAVID KEATING: It’s definitely a plus when we have more debate about where our country should be headed.

And political scientists that have studied spending in elections, they find that when there is more spending, there’s more message and more people are paying attention, voters are better informed, and they turn out in higher numbers. I think these are all positive things for our democracy across the board.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what about Sheila’s point, though, that now the attention, the weight of influence gravitates towards those with the most money?

DAVID KEATING: Well, I think, ultimately, the voters are in charge, and if the voters don’t like who is backing these candidates, they’re the ones that they control the voting booth, and that is how things get done.

You have to look. The self-funded candidates, they often flame out. So, money doesn’t equal victory. It just means speech.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How do you see that?

SHEILA KRUMHOLZ: Well, disclosure just got a lot more complicated, because now it’s a big enough chore that we try to undertake to track who these largest individual donors are that are giving to the candidates’ PACs and parties.

But it is not true that voters have access to the information they need to really understand who is bankrolling efforts to elect these candidates. They have more information about the money that is going in to the candidates — the pockets of the candidates and parties. They know far less about who is bankrolling these outside efforts, which can be determinative in close races.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Which is it? Do they know or don’t they know?

DAVID KEATING: Well, a lot of it — a lot of the problem with the disclosure passed in some of the states, it’s generating junk disclosure, where the money that is being recorded has nothing do with the ad that’s on the air.

Our group just won a ruling in the state of Delaware where Delaware was trying to force disclosure for groups that are publishing voter guides, things like Project Vote Smart and that sort of thing, which is I think a ridiculous level of disclosure.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, this is something we’re going to continue to look at throughout this election cycle.

We thank you both, David Keating, Sheila Krumholz.


DAVID KEATING: You’re welcome. Thank you.