Super-PACs set to influence Senate primaries

Super-PACs are popping up in contested Senate primaries where the groups could become major players in some of the cycle’s hottest intra-party squabbles. 

Outside spending is expected to play a substantial role in the 2016 Senate elections, but a handful of groups dedicated solely to specific candidates are getting into position to inject a new dimension into tough Senate primaries. 

Ian Vandewalker, counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, told The Hill that he believes there could be a “big uptick” in these single-candidate super-PACs that wade into these primaries and that those groups will likely have more money than before. 

{mosads}Campaign finance law only requires super-PACs, which can accept unlimited donations as long as the groups don’t coordinate spending with candidates, to file donation reports once every six months during the off-year. So it’s unclear how many groups devoted to a single Senate candidate exist or how much firepower those groups have, as many of the ones that are on the record haven’t reported donations since July. 

But at least four exist with more than $100,000 banked up to help carry a candidate through a tough primary. And some of those groups are sponsored in part by some of the nation’s largest political donors.

New Leadership for Ohio, a group backing Democratic Cincinnati Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld in his long-shot bid for his party’s Senate nomination, reported raising $370,000 in the first two weeks after it launched this fall. 

Reform Washington, bolstering Florida Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera, reported $740,000 as of July, while one of Lopez-Cantera’s three primary rivals, Rep. Ron DeSantis, has a group that announced a $1.2 million haul in October. The race for cash could play a big part in the primary, where the crowded field also includes includes Rep. David Jolly.

And Arizona Grassroots Action PAC, aligned with Republican Sen. John McCain, had almost $116,000 on hand in July after helping to elect local politicians allied with McCain.  

Representatives with New Leadership for Ohio and Arizona Grassroots wouldn’t shed light on their groups’ hauls since then, choosing to wait and let the January finance reports speak for each group’s fundraising, but they expressed confidence that their groups will have more than enough cash to make a difference.  

“There’s less money in Senate races” than the presidential races, Vandewalker noted.  

“As much as this stuff moves the needle, you can move the needle with less money. You don’t necessarily need the huge amounts.” 

Paul DeMarco, a Democratic activist in Ohio who helped start New Leadership, said his primary motivation is “the desire to elevate [Sittenfeld’s] name identification statewide” as he takes on former Gov. Ted Strickland in the Democratic primary. As of October, only 14 percent of Ohioans had heard enough about the councilman to express an opinion in a Quinnipiac University poll, compared to almost 80 percent for Strickland.  

“Ted’s not an incumbent, but he has an incumbent’s baggage and with P.G. on the other hand, we have the advantage of being able to introduce him to people who are thirsting for a refreshing young voice,” DeMarco said.  

The group unveiled a 15-second ad on Friday on its Facebook page that centers on Sittenfeld’s record on gun control, an issue where the group believes it can contrast with Strickland, who won the endorsement of the National Rifle Association in 2010 when he ran against Republican and future Gov. John Kasich. The ad’s release comes as the country is still digesting the recent shooting in California that killed 14 people. 

While the group’s Facebook page only had 45 followers as of Friday afternoon, it hopes to purchase a digital ad for the video to increase its reach, said Neil Kammerman, a political media strategist who helped found the group. 

Although New Leadership has the tough task of bolstering a challenger’s bid to topple a candidate endorsed by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, Arizona Grassroots has the comparative luxury of defending a five-term Senator. Big Tea Party names have so far declined to challenge McCain, leaving State Sen. Kelli Ward as his only primary opponent.

Its largest donors are Sam Fox and Paul Singer, who each donated $100,000 to the group’s efforts this spring. Fox donated $250,000 to the Jeb Bush-allied super-PAC Right to Rise, while Singer is one of the GOP’s largest donors to endorse Sen. Marco Rubio’s presidential bid. 

Arizona Grassroots wasted no time after Ward’s July announcement that she was running, dropping an online video bashing Ward, describing her as having a penchant for “fringe issues, with oddball bills that would make Arizona a laughingstock.”  

The group hit the ground running in 2014 with its push to engage grassroots activists and promote candidates for the state party’s executive committee and local precinct committees after the party censured. Now with the focus solely on McCain’s reelection, the group plans to use that network in combination with the more traditional advertising role that super-PACs have played. 

“This is a lot more than just a clearinghouse for television commercials, this really is a broad-based grassroots effort that we think will benefit John McCain’s chances of reelection,” the aide said.  

The aide added that the super-PAC is another vehicle for the longtime senator’s supporters “to be helpful” and provides a better bang for donor’s dollars than donating to a larger group that won’t exclusively focus on McCain’s race. 

There are other candidate-aligned super-PACs across the country, but with significantly less resources.  

McCain’s primary ally, Ward, has the support of KelliPac. But that group reported only $2,000 in July, before Ward officially announced.   

In Florida, Rep. Patrick Murphy, who is running in the Democratic primary for Senate against Rep. Alan Grayson, is backed by the group Floridians for a Strong Middle Class. But that group only reported $25,000 in July.  

And incumbent New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R) is supported by the super-PAC Granite State Solutions, which raised $500,000 on a single check, but it’s unclear whether she’ll face a primary challenge despite recent rumblings.  

As the big money continues to dominate the presidential race and the Senate general election, the Brennan Center’s Vandewalker believes more and more super-PACs will eventually coalesce behind candidates. That could spell a big change for primaries and the donors who wish to bankroll them.  

“Presidential races are always all guns firing, everything you can possibly think of to do you do. Once those things get proven at that level, they trickle down,” he said.  

“The fact that it is becoming so ubiquitous … it really starts to question do we really have effective contribution limits anymore.”

Tags Alan Grayson John McCain Kelly Ayotte Marco Rubio

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