Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

Outside Groups Bet Millions on Shaping Midterm Primary Contests

June 4, 2018 Ken Doyle
  • TV ads `alive and well’ even as campaigns go digital
  • California’s `jungle primary’ magnet for about $14 million

Campaign spending groups not linked to candidates poured $42.4 million in May into television ads and other messages seeking to influence control of Congress in this year’s midterm elections, reports filed with the Federal Election Commission show.

More than $30 million in outside money was spent by groups seeking to shape key House primaries, including about $14 million in several high-stakes races in California’s “jungle primary” Tuesday, where candidates from all parties compete and the top two vote-getters face off in November.

The spending spree also included more than $12 million in early money that went for ads seeking to shape competitive Senate elections in the fall.

Expensive TV advertising “is alive and well as a campaign tactic,” despite a recent focus on the rise of digital ads, according to Erika Franklin Fowler, co-director of the Wesleyan Media Project.

The nonprofit research project this month, in its latest report on trends in campaign advertising, found a jump of 88.6 percent in TV ad airings in congressional and gubernatorial races over the comparable period in the 2014 midterm cycle.

FEC figures analyzed by another nonprofit watchdog, the Center for Responsive Politics, indicated total outside spending in the 2018 midterms so far has reached $142.5 million. That’s more than 40 percent above the $100 million spent by the same point in 2014 and represented a more than six-fold increase over the outside spending level in the 2010 midterms.

Focus on California

The bulk of the money spent in House primaries in May came from Democratic groups seeking to shore up the party’s chances to flip several House seats held by Republicans in California.

The groups include the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, a party committee, and the House Majority PAC, a super PAC aligned with House Democratic leaders. They’re seeking to ensure Democrats have a shot in California’s top-two primary to prevail in races for seats now held by Republican incumbents. These include the seats of Reps. Dana RohrabacherMimi Walters and Darrell Issa, who isn’t running for re-election.

Several Democrats are competing against each other in these races, raising the possibility that no Democrat will garner enough votes to advance past the primary.

Democrats Targeted in Senate Races

Meanwhile, Republican-leaning groups are targeting Democratic incumbents in Senate races in states President Donald Trump won in 2016. In response, Democratic groups, led by the SMP, formerly the Senate Majority PAC, are defending those incumbents, including Sens. Bill Nelson (Fla.), Claire McCaskill (Mo.), Joe Donnelly (Ind.) and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.).

Almost $4.5 million was spent in May on ads in Florida’s Senate race, which is expected to pit Nelson against Rick Scott, currently the state’s Republican governor.

More than $2.2 million was spent to support Nelson by SMP, the super-political action committee aligned with Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and other Senate Democratic leaders. A roughly equal amount was spent by New Republican PAC, a super-PAC organized by supporters of Scott, which received fundraising help from the governor before he formally announced his Senate candidacy.

Some Money Not Reported

SMP also spent heavily in May on ads defending the seats of McCaskill, Donnelly and Manchin. This spending countered advertising by conservative groups, such as Americans for Prosperity, which is sometimes not reported to the FEC.

The outside money reported to the FEC includes “independent expenditures” that explicitly call for votes for or against a candidate. Spending on messages that avoid such “express advocacy” generally isn’t reported.

AFP, which is linked to the network of conservative donors headed by Charles and David Koch of Koch Industries Inc., has announced TV ad buys worth almost $4 million targeting McCaskill and Donnelly for voting against a Republican-backed tax bill (Public Law 115-97). This spending wasn’t reported to the FEC because the ads didn’t explicitly call for votes against the senators.

AFP, like other nonprofit groups, also doesn’t report funding sources to the FEC. Critics refer to the undisclosed funding of such groups as “dark money.”

The latest Wesleyan Media Project study found that in House and Senate races the majority of outside spending this election cycle is coming from nondisclosing groups. The study found, for example, that two-thirds of outside ads in the 2018 Senate races have come from groups that keep their funding sources secret.

To contact the reporter on this story: Kenneth P. Doyle in Washington at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Paul Hendrie at; Katherine Rizzo at; Robin Meszoly at; Bennett Roth at

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