Political Ads: Dark Money Dominating Senate Contests

Dark money groups — 501(c) tax-exempt organizations — have been behind 28,551 ads in Senate races so far, compared with 16,102 paid for by super PACs.

Posted on 05/15/16
By Robert Maguire | Via OpenSecrets.org
(Photo by Patrick McKay, Creative Commons License)
(Photo by Patrick McKay, Creative Commons License)

As political advertising in the 2016 presidential contest hits new heights — fueled largely by outlays from super PACs and campaigns — the battles that will determine control of the Senate are seeing historic amounts of dark money spending.


A new report released by the Wesleyan Media Project — produced in partnership with the Center for Responsive Politics — shows that the volume of presidential advertising has more than doubled over 2012. And while both parties are contributing to that increase, their spending has taken significantly different forms.


On the Democratic side, the candidates themselves are driving the rise in airings. Longshot Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders tops the list of ad spots, with almost 125,000 airings, while  frontrunner Hillary Clinton is close behind with more than 105,000. More than 99 percent of both candidates’ ads were run by their respective campaigns, rather than allied super PACs or nonprofit.


That stands in stark contrast to the Republican nominating contest, where, on average, just 24 percent of the ads run were paid for by the campaigns themselves. The one outlier, as with everything else, is Donald Trump, the GOP’s presumptive nominee; his 33,050 ads were all run by his campaign. But as WMP’s Travis Ridout notes, Trump has benefited like no other candidate from his “amazing ability to attract free media.” Indeed, the New York Times estimated in March that Trump had benefited from $2 billion worth of free or “earned” media.


The outside groups active in the 2016 presidential race are overwhelmingly super PACs, which account for more than 90 percent of the advertising not sponsored by the candidates themselves. And while super PACs generally have to disclose their donors, politically active nonprofits — mostly 501(c)(4) social welfare organizations and 501(c)(6) trade associations — are able to spend heavily on politics without disclosing the sources of their funding, and these groups are flooding Senate races right now.


Nearly 60 percent of the outside group spending in Senate races so far has come from 501(c) organizations. That is almost exactly where it stood at the end of April 2014, according to a 2014 WMP report, but up significantly from 2012 Senate races. While almost as many ads have been run in 2016 Senate races as at this point in 2012 — 98,247 and 100,676 ads, respectively — a 2012 WMP report shows that no single 501(c) had run more than 800 ad spots in a Senate race at this point in 2012. By contrast, in 2016, 10 nonprofits have bought more ads than that, and five of them have bought well into the thousands.


Pennsylvania, where there was a hard-fought Democratic Senate primary in preparation for what is expected to be a tight general election, has seen more than twice as many ads as any other state — 22,309 airings through May 8. Much of that has come from organizations that don’t disclose their donors.


Dark money groups — 501(c) tax-exempt organizations — have been behind 28,551 ads in Senate races so far, compared with 16,102 paid for by super PACs.


Because Senate candidates can’t rely on free media as much as presidential hopefuls can, they need to spend money to get their messages out and are “leaning more than ever on groups that can accept unlimited anonymous contributions,” said Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics.


Several of these groups — most notably One Nation, run by the same operatives who run the Karl Rove-affiliated Crossroads GPS — have never reported their spending to the Federal Election Commission, since the spots are ostensibly “issue ads” that don’t urge viewers to vote for or against a candidate. One Nation has run more than 4,000 ads in seven states where Republicans face tough election battles. Similarly, the Koch-affiliated Concerned Veterans for America, which also spent heavily in 2014 without reporting to the FEC, has run more than 1,500 ads without reporting anything.

As GOP leaders fret about what a Trump nomination means for down ballot races, this reliance on dark money isn’t likely to abate any time soon.


Robert joined the Center in August 2011 as the outside spending and PACs researcher. In 2012, he started CRP’s Politically Active Nonprofits project, which tracks the financial networks of “dark money” groups, mainly 501(c)(4) and 501(c)(6) organizations. In 2014, he won, with colleague Viveca Novak, the Society of Professional Journalists’ Sigma Delta Chi Award for Public Service in Online Journalism for a series of stories published on OpenSecrets Blog. Robert has a masters in U.S. foreign policy from American University. Before coming to Washington, D.C., he lived, studied and worked for several years in France and Taiwan, traveling extensively in Europe and Asia. He is originally from Charleston, SC.

This article first appeared at OpenSecrets.org. Click here to go to the original.

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