Outside cash trumps candidates’ in half a dozen tight races

Outside spending groups are making their presence felt in several tight House races, in some cases spending more than the candidates on the ballot.

A review of The Hill’s toss-up races found roughly half a dozen contests where outside groups have spent more than at least one of the candidates, according to Federal Election Commission (FEC) records through mid-October for the campaigns and independent expenditures.

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The deluge of outside spending on advertising, direct mail and voter canvassing could have a major impact on the makeup of the lower chamber next year. 

Rick Hasen, a law professor and campaign finance law expert at the University of California-Irvine, said candidates now have more to worry about than just their challenger on the ballot.

“It’s the new normal. You have to worry not just about your opponent having popular support, but also [if he or she has] one or two sugar daddies on their side,” Hasen said.

The Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in January 2010 allowed corporations and unions to spend unlimited money from their treasury funds expressly advocating for or against a candidate’s election. That has helped fuel an explosion of spending by super-PACs and other outside groups, efforts that could tip the scales in a number of close races.

Money from “outside groups or a candidate forces voters to take a second or third look at a candidate,” Hasen said. “It keeps a candidate competitive where they otherwise wouldn’t be.”

Campaign finance watchdogs say the impact of the relaxed spending rules can be seen in the attack ads filling the airwaves.

“Outside spending is more negative. It’s less accountable. It just drives the process away from the candidates,” said Bob Biersack, a senior fellow with the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP).

The ad barrage has not gone unnoticed by the candidates, who are trying to ensure their messages aren’t drowned out.

“I don’t think anyone else can look at this situation and say it is perfect,” said James Slepian, a spokesman for Rep. Jim Renacci’s (R-Ohio) campaign.

Renacci’s campaign has spent more than $1.9 million up to Oct. 17 this election cycle. Outside groups — such as the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the Service Employees International Union and Sierra Club Independent Action — have spent about $3 million on independent expenditures opposing him during that same time period, according to FEC records.

“Yes, we have been outspent, but I don’t think it has had the impact that the outside groups thought it would. Voters want to hear from the candidates themselves and how they would work for the district,” Slepian said.

Because of redistricting, Renacci is running for reelection against another lawmaker, Rep. Betty Sutton (D-Ohio). The race has attracted more than $6.1 million in outside money to date, according to CRP. Slepian said the campaign “went up early with positive ads that helped counter the negative attacks from outside groups.”

“That was the strategy that we came up with in August, and it has worked well,” Slepian said.

Democrats have been outspent as well. The campaign for former Rep. Rick Nolan (D-Minn.), who’s running against Rep. Chip Cravaack (R-Minn.), reported spending about $530,000 up to Oct. 17. The American Action Network has spent about $750,000 during the same time period opposing Nolan, according to FEC data.

“We feel good where we are at. It’s never good to be outspent, but we are working hard,” said Michael Misterek, Nolan’s campaign manager. “What happens with these outside groups is they can say virtually anything. It’s pretty easy for them to pull quotes out of context.”

Cravaack, too, has been outspent, at least through mid-October. The lawmaker’s campaign reported spending more than $1.2 million up to Oct. 17. Outside groups opposing him — including House Majority PAC and the Women Vote! project, which is affiliated with EMILY’s List — had spent more than $1.6 million in that same period.

Dan Krupnick, a spokesman for Democrat Jose Hernandez, who is challenging Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Calif.), said that outside money attempts to “redefine the race away from the two candidates.” The groups, he said, “air incendiary ads and hope to see what sticks. It should be about who is best for representing the valley and representing the district.”

The American Action Network, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and others spent roughly $3 million on independent expenditures opposing Hernandez up to Oct. 17. The Hernandez campaign spent about half that, $1.4 million, during the same period.

Jeff Wyly, Rep. Dan Lungren’s (R-Calif.) campaign manager, said their team is not worried about the millions of outside dollars being spent in the district.

“We know what our message is. Our message is talking about jobs and the economy, and that’s what we’ve continued to talk about,” Wyly said.

Lungren’s campaign spent almost $1.7 million up until Oct. 17, while outside groups countered with nearly $2.8 million in opposition.

“People know him and people either love him or hate him,” Wyly said of Lungren. “If you don’t have a record to run on, of course you try to change what people are talking about, but it’s not moving voters’ minds.”

The California Republican voted against campaign finance reform legislation — the Disclose Act — last Congress, but has introduced a bill this session that would remove contribution limits to candidates while increasing the disclosure requirements for all political donations. Wyly argues Lungren’s bill would allow candidates to “be responsible for what they put out there.”

Wyly said Lungren opposed the Disclose Act because it didn’t treat all outside groups equally.

When the final campaign finance reports come in after Election Day, it is likely several more congressional campaigns will have been dwarfed by outside spending.

“They are the big player on the block. Bigger than the party, bigger than the candidate,” said Craig Holman of Public Citizen. “I think outside spending is going to be the most important factor in these congressional races.”