See how campaign money is being spent ahead of midterms

Election Day is three weeks away and in many ways, it's all about the money. Over the weekend, candidates faced a federal deadline to report their campaign spending and fundraising through September. Lisa Desjardins joined Judy Woodruff to discuss the filings.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Election Day is three weeks from tomorrow, meaning this is a time when candidates and campaigns are having to focus more than ever on money.

    They recently faced a federal deadline to report their campaign spending and fund-raising through September.

    Lisa Desjardins is here to walk us through how finances are playing in this year's elections.

    Hello, Lisa.

  • Lisa Desjardins:


  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, compared to other years, how much of a factor is money this year?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Judy, we are seeing a storm of campaign spending.

    Let's look at the comparative numbers here. You go back to 2018, the last purely midterm election, total spending then was itself also very high, $5.7 billion. Where do we think we will end up this year?

    This estimate by OpenSecrets says more than $9.3 billion, approaching twice that much in just four years. Notably, this year, outside spending groups, super PACs, all of those kinds of ideas, they're contributing more than $1.3 billion. So that's a billion-dollar force from folks who are not candidates and not political parties.

    I will say one thing we're noticing this year is that Democratic candidates seem to be raising more than Republican candidates, the candidates themselves. However, Republicans have an advantage and are raising more money with these outside groups.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Who don't have to tell so much about who they are.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    They have different requirements. That's right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Where the money is coming from.

    So, how much difference does it make on the ground when one party gives so much and another gives a different amount?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    I want to really focus on those outside groups, because Democrats especially are feeling that pressure in the Senate races right now.

    And I want to talk about a Senate group, the Senate Leadership — the Senate Leadership Fund. That is a group connected to Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell. That is a super PAC, but it is connected to a dark money group as well.

    Now, I want to look at a map of where that group, Senator McConnell's group, has been spending money on ads in Senate races, Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Georgia. Those are races that they believe their money, that influx of millions of dollars that they're spending can move the race one way or the other.

    And let's look at some of the ads that they have actually been putting on air, the Senate leadership fund right there. Do you feel safe? This is an ad you see in Wisconsin. These are all ads really against the Democratic candidate, dark images, negative ads, so to speak.

    We spoke to someone from OpenSecrets Brendan Galvin, about super PACs and dark money and this group. And this is what he told us.

  • Brendan Galvin, OpenSecrets:

    Both sides are raising millions of dollars within — from these dark money groups. But, right now, what we're seeing is the — especially in the Senate, the Senate Leadership Fund is able to outspend the Democratic — their Democratic counterparts.

    And we saw this coming over the course of the cycle.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    My Democratic Senate sources are really feeling this right now. They felt they had so much momentum through the summer. Now this change in spending, especially from McConnell's group, is affecting them, they say.

    And they're also seeing a change in who's paying for this. We don't know exactly who all the donors are for Senator McConnell's group. But we know some billionaires like Peter Thiel, the well-known kind of West Coast investing — investment guru guy, he has been spending millions of his own dollars in specific races, including in Ohio.

    His candidates of choice have won in those primaries. He's a big factor. Of course, Democrats have their own billionaires. George Soros himself put in over $100 million last year. What we're seeing, Judy, here is, small donors, regular folks, they're tapped out. They have nothing more to donate. They have been asked so many times.

    Billionaires, however, are continuing to give. And they are really controlling a lot of the spending right now.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And a lot of that's going to Republicans, it appears.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    From those largest donors, yes, at this moment.

  • Judy Woodruff:


    So you have also, Lisa, looked at these races. That was mostly about Senate and the House, federal races.

  • Lisa Desjardins:


  • Judy Woodruff:

    You have also been looking, though, at state and local races and the money they are raising.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    This is important, because, as much as we're talking about billions, historic amounts of money for control of Congress, we're also seeing historic numbers for many of the races across the United States.

    We have 46 state legislatures up on the ballot this year. And let's look at what we know about this. We are seeing record spending for control of those state legislatures by both parties across the country. And just secretary of state races alone — we know that's such an important race right now, as we talk about our democracy — those candidates have raised $50 million, which really is an unheard-of figure for that kind of what used to be seen as a government process office.

    And just one example, the Arizona secretary of state race, in which we have unknown election denier on the Republican side running, that race alone right now is well over $10 million. And that could be even more.

    I know it's millions, not billions. It's easy to lose track. But in secretary of state races, that's a massive amount of money. And what's happening here is, those election deniers, so-called election deniers on the ballot, when we talk to the Brennan Center for Justice, they say they're having an effect on just bringing in money for both sides.

    Here's Dan Weiner from the Brennan center.

    Daniel Weiner, Brennan Center for Justice: Those candidates raise a lot of money nationally, and, actually, so do their opponents, because of the sense that the stakes are incredibly high for democracy in those elections.

    But I think that this is the wave of the future in some sense, that we're going to see a lot more money and a lot more corresponding ideology in elections that were previously considered somewhat sleepy.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    This is a shift, he's saying, in how elections work.

    But one other thing I want to say. This money obviously is very important. People — voters are going to be getting the effects of it. They will be seeing the ad, but it's not the only thing. Both sides, sources are telling me they think the election atmosphere, they think the candidates themselves are just as important right now.

    But it is sort of like a nuclear buildup on both sides that certainly voters will feel.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Right in these final weeks, when people are paying more attention to these races.

    Lisa Desjardins, thank you.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    You're welcome.

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