Outside campaign spending jumps in 2014

Outside political groups are on track to eclipse their spending during the 2010 GOP wave election, but only a fraction of that money has been reported to the public.

According to a new report from the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University’s School of Law, outside groups have spent $72 million on independent expenditures in nine Senate races, a pace set to exceed the $97 million that such groups spent on 37 Senate races in the 2010 cycle.

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Most of that spending came in North Carolina, where Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) is clinging to her seat, and Kentucky, where Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) faces the toughest race of his career.

Independent expenditures by outside groups reported to the Federal Election Commission so far total $14 million in North Carolina and $12 million in Kentucky.

These publicly reported totals, however, are only a fraction of the sums actually being spent. 

Outside groups have spent $32.4 million on ads in North Carolina, according to a Democratic source tracking media buys in Senate battlegrounds. 

Pro-Republican groups have spent $18.1 million to defeat Hagan while groups allied with Democrats have spent $14.3 million to defend her.

Groups have spent $14.5 million in Kentucky, according to the same Democratic source.

GOP-allied groups have spent $11.1 million, and those aiming to knock off McConnell have spent $3.5 million. 

A large chunk of the spending on ads propping up or attack candidates does not get reported to the FEC because those ads do not explicitly urge voters to support or oppose a candidate. Ultimately, they could also fall outside the reporting windows of 30 days before a primary and 60 days before a general election. 

“The way the definition [is], if you’re spending on issue ads, if you’re hitting someone on ObamaCare early on and you don’t say vote for or against this person, that doesn’t get reported to the FEC,” said Ian Vandewalker, the author of the Brennan Center report.

“A lot of the spending is focused on ObamaCare against incumbent Democrats. Ads just say, ‘So-and-so supports ObamaCare, and that’s wrong for our district,’ and that doesn’t have to get reported,” he said.

The FEC data also does not reflect spending from the conservative group that has the biggest fund in 2014, Americans for Prosperity, which is backed by GOP mega-donors Charles and David Koch.

“They’re the biggest spender so far, and all the spending they’re doing is not being reported to the FEC,” said Vandewalker.

Groups backed by the Koch brothers reportedly plan to spend $290 million on the midterms to help Republicans take back the Senate.

This unregulated and unreported spending is a major concern for Senate Democratic leaders, who are pushing legislation that would require groups that spend more than $10,000 to reveal their donors.

Hagan is a co-sponsor of the proposal, which Republicans oppose and has virtually no chance of passing this year. 

Senate Democrats also favor a constitutional amendment that would empower Congress to regulate campaign spending, effectively overturning the Supreme Court's landmark decision in Citizens United v. FEC.  

Outside groups spent just over $8 million in Arkansas and slightly less than $8 million in Alaska, the Brennan Center reported, citing public disclosures to the FEC.

But public records captured only half of the total amount spent in the battle over Sen. Mark Pryor’s seat (D-Ark.), according to a Democratic source tracking media buys.

Outside groups have spent $17.7 million so far on ads in Arkansas. Republican groups have spent $10.8 million to defeat Pryor, while Democrats have spent $6.9 million to defend him. 

In Alaska, groups have spent $9.4 million, according to the source tracking media buys. Groups have doled out $5.2 million to defend Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) and $4.2 million to oust him. 

Much of the spending in Alaska has come from two groups, Put Alaska First and Alaska SalmonPAC, which support Begich. 

The Brennan Center reported that Put Alaska First has received contributions from the fishing industry and a casino based in California. 

One of Begich’s opponents, former state Attorney General Dan Sullivan, has benefited from a super-PAC called Alaska’s Energy/America’s Values.

Vandewalker said most of the spending that’s not reported to the FEC happens in states with the closest races.

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