ATLANTA — The Republican Governors Association and its Democratic counterpart were the dominant players in making donations to pay for state-level elections in 2014. The two groups often served as pass-throughs for billionaires, unions and corporations seeking influence in statehouses nationwide.
The RGA, which helped the GOP grow its roster of governors to 31, donated almost $69 million to candidates and others spending money on campaigns. The Democratic Governors Association gave nearly $32 million, according to a new analysis from the Washington-based Center for Public Integrity.
Those totals account for more than a fifth of the $440 million the top 50 donors spread around during the two-year cycle leading up to the November elections in races for state legislatures, as well as executive office, such as governor, and seats on state boards, commissions and courts that are elected statewide.
The analysis does not count direct spending on a race — for example, money used to buy a TV ad that tells voters it was sponsored by the Republican Governors Association. Rather, it looks at donations to candidates and groups, who then use that money for such spending.
Along with the two governors associations, the top donors include several state parties, corporations, labor groups and wealthy individuals. Several were successful and unsuccessful candidates who helped bankroll their own campaigns. Most of the top donors also distributed money across multiple states, in many cases dwarfing home-grown political donors.
The analysis found that many top donors gave money to each other — labor organizations to the DGA, for example, and conservative billionaire activists to the RGA. Further, the top contributors directed 40 percent of their giving to outside political groups, a larger share than what was given directly to either the campaigns of individual candidates or state political parties.
The DGA, for example, gave more than $6 million to the political committee Making Colorado Great, which in turn sponsored advertising intended to help Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper’s re-election. The RGA, meanwhile, donated $5.5 million to the political committee Grow Connecticut, which advertised against Democratic Gov. Dannel Malloy.
In both cases, that means voters watching the ads did not see any connection to the two national organizations or the individuals and groups that backed them.
The governors associations’ largest sources of money were also leading national donors. Republicans received money from Las Vegas casino magnate Sheldon Adelson; David Koch of Koch Industries; hedge-fund manager Paul Singer; and Duke Energy, among others. Democrats got cash from former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg; the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees; the Service Employees International Union; and the National Education Association.
The totals come from disclosures made by candidates and state political parties, as well as state and federal records of 140 independent groups that spent money on television ads during the election cycle.
The analysis does not include donations tied to ballot initiative campaigns or federal races for the House or Senate. It also doesn’t offer a complete bottom-line on donations, given that disclosure rules and schedules vary from state-to-state. Some late-campaign or postelection contributions also were not included in the analysis.
Comparisons to previous election cycles are also difficult, as well, since the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision allowed technically independent political organizations — unions, corporate PACs and the like — to spend unlimited amounts of money directly on elections, effectively bypassing limits placed on their donations to candidates and political parties.
“You give the maximum to the candidates, but then you want to give more,” said Larry Noble, a former general counsel of the Federal Election Commission. “You give to the party committee that’s also going to support the candidate. You give to outside groups that are also going to support the candidate.”
In cases where money did go directly to candidates, top 50 donors had considerable success: 85 percent of their chosen candidates won, compared to a 52 percent success rate for the typical political contributor, according to the Center for Public Integrity analysis.
Some corporate donors had a standout rate of success. Comcast Corp. gave about $1.7 million directly to candidates in 36 states — and 93 percent of them won. A company spokeswoman, Sena Fitzmaurice, said most of the money went to incumbents aligned with the industry on regulatory matters.
“The decisions that are made by legislatures control our business,” Fitzmaurice said.
A few big spenders across the political spectrum had little to celebrate on election night. The National Education Association backed 13 candidates directly; just three won. Republican billionaire Charles Munger Jr. spent nearly $300,000 on 45 GOP candidates, just 13 of whom won.
The donations continued beyond Election Day, too. In the closing days of 2014, after Republican Bruce Rauner won the governor’s race in Democratic-leaning Illinois, the wealthy governor-elect and two other large donors — shipping supply magnate Richard Uihlein and hedge-fund billionaire Kenneth Griffin — gave a combined $20 million to Rauner’s campaign.