Campaign Finance and Midterms: One for the Record Books

By: Brian Nistler

It seems it was not long ago that we had our last election cycle. Pundit ads filling our tv screens. The midterm season is already heating up and this time around the excitement is beginning early. April 14th was the first chance for Congressional candidates, Super PACs, and other political nonprofits to file their total for fundraising for January, February, and March of 2014. The filings show some interesting trends that will likely continue throughout the midterms, and probably affect how candidates run from now on. These trends include the importance of the Super PACs in the midterms, the massive war chests of several candidates, and the amount spent on TV advertising. Looking at these trends now allow insight into what will likely occur as the midterms pick up over summer and into the fall, and how our political process will look in the future.

This midterm election looks to be a groundbreaking year for the influence of money in politics, as well as the influence of independent organizations. There is reason to believe that this midterm will see the highest amount of money donated to separate candidates and political organizations to date. This monetary standoff is likely due to (1) the impact of McCutcheon v. FEC, (2) the Republican push to try and take back the Senate, and (3) the Democrats attempts to take over of the house.

On the side of the Democrats, the Senate Majority PAC raised $11 million, and the House Majority PAC raised more than $5.2 million. Priorities USA, which has been instrumental in President Obama’s election, has reported little fundraising for the first quarter, but they have recently ramped up their efforts.

However, Democrats still have a long way to go to match what the independent Republican organizations are raking in. American’s For Prosperity has spent more than $34 million. As a not-for-profit entity, it is not required to disclose its fundraising. Another Conservative group, Freedom Partners, has purchased more than $250,000 in television spots.

Currently, television advertisements, are where the midterms are being fought. Television ads have already been running in Arkansas, Alaska, and Kentucky. Since December 30th, eleven incumbent senators have spent $6.2 million on TV spots and non-incumbents have spent $7.6 million; a total of $13.8 million. An exacerbating factor is the relatively inexpensive cost of airtime in small markets. This cheap price compared with the war chests of the Super PACs, non-profits, and individual candidates helps create the influx of TV ads.

One reason for this early start is the desire of candidates to control how the public sees them. With the influx of influence and money from independent groups, candidates, wanting to control how their constituents see them, had to start early so as to attempt to control the conversation. This desire, coupled with the changing habits of the American TV viewer to record more and watch fewer commercials, has created the supposed need to place more ads earlier. These efforts are further thwarted by the more frequent use of online television streaming services such as Netflix and Hulu Plus.

It is not just the independent groups that have seen unprecedented windfalls. Individual candidates, especially those backed by Emily’s List, have done quite well in the first quarter. Alison Grimes, running against Mitch McConnell in Kentucky, raised $2.7 million, outpacing the seasoned senator in fundraising for the second time. North Carolina Senator Kay Hagan raised $2.8 million, and Georgia Democrat Michelle Nunn raised $2.4 million.

The use of money in SuperPacs and by individual candidates has created an environment where candidates need to raise a lot of money quickly. The Tea Party, and their candidates, has not been able to raise as much as some of their competitors. Bryan Smith, a Tea Party candidate challenging Rep. Simpson of Idaho, has only raised $137,000; a third of what Simpson has raised. Many other Tea Party candidates are also reporting low numbers. Historically, Tea Party candidates have not been concerned about how much they have raised. They have normally been proud of it, touting their ability to appeal to the people without the aid of a deep war chest. However, in this election, their appeal may not be enough. A war chest may be needed this election, especially when the strategy is looking like one of attrition.

The real question is what effect this longer midterm season will have on the voters. Will they tire early of all the campaign attack ads? The current view is that it is better to get out ahead of the pack in order to have your platform heard. However, the midterms are a marathon, not a sprint. It is unclear if having this much of a stampede this early on will tire the candidates, but it will undoubtedly tire the voters.

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