WASHINGTON – The record amount of independent spending swamping this year’s congressional races is fueling a deeply negative political atmosphere, as attack ads from independent groups overwhelm the messages of candidates in many competitive races.
More than 80 percent of the money spent by big-money independent groups and parties in the general election has gone to oppose a candidate, according to a Washington Post analysis of campaign finance data collected by the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan research organization.
The biggest target: North Carolina GOP Senate candidate Thom Tillis, who has already endured a $26 million offensive in what is expected to be the most expensive Senate race in U.S. history.
Overall, the 2014 House and Senate races are attracting record levels of non-candidate spending, with $577 million spent by independent groups and political parties so far this cycle – more than every previous federal election other than the 2012 presidential contest, according to the center.
The prominent role of independent groups in 2014 underscores how firmly such groups have become planted in the political firmament, less than five years after the Supreme Court opened the door to more unlimited spending.
“You may not like the process and what it’s doing, but you can’t unilaterally disarm if the other side is doing it,” said Richard Hohlt, a veteran Republican consultant who has been involved in campaigns since 1972. “We’re in a spiral here that’s only going to get more and more out of control.”
The biggest drivers of this year’s frenzy of political ads and voter calls have been players such as super PACs, politically active nonprofits and unions that operate outside traditional campaigns. Such groups have already plowed at least $425 million into messages and outreach, along with another $152 million spent by party committees.
Those tallies actually underestimate the full amount being invested in House and Senate races. Tens of millions more have been spent by tax-exempt groups that keep their donors secret. Such organizations only report to the Federal Election Commission what they spend on direct political appeals – activities that have totaled nearly $133 million so far, more than in any other congressional election.
“Even more concerning than there being so much money in outside groups is how much of it is hidden money,” said Sheila Krumholz, the center’s executive director.
The huge sums have drowned out the candidates themselves, who in many races cannot match the resources of super PACs and nonprofits, which can raise unlimited money.
Independent groups are “doing a lot of the dirty work in campaigns, while at the same time making it more difficult for campaigns to control the message,” said Daniel Tokaji, an election law professor at Ohio State University who has studied the impact of such groups in congressional races.
The net effect: Anger has been the dominant emotional appeal in this year’s Senate races, featured in two-thirds of all ads through early October, according to the Wesleyan Media Project.
The biggest imbalance this year is in Iowa, where the Senate candidates spent $13.6 million through the end of September compared to $25 million by others, according to a report by the Brennan Center for Justice. Conservatives who back campaign-finance deregulation argue that independent groups help inject new ideas into the debate, raising topics relevant to voters.
“The idea that campaigns are something solely to be hammered out between candidates and parties is very wrong,” said Bradley Smith, chairman of the Center for Competitive Politics, which supports loosening campaign finance restrictions. “There’s nothing wrong with the people saying, ‘We want this issue to be addressed.’ “The proliferation of super PACs and political nonprofits has deepened the negative tenor of campaigns. That’s in large part because the groups are prohibited from coordinating their messaging strategy with official campaigns, making it more difficult for them to craft positive ads featuring the candidates.