Despite the gains by Democrats, the single most prolific source of funds used in outside spending campaigns, according to the Center’s analysis, was the Republican Governors Association. The RGA was responsible for at least $34 million of the $209 million in outside spending in the 38 states that were subject to the Center’s analysis.
Some of the RGA’s biggest donors in 2012 were conservative billionaires who were also active in federal races.
Adelson and his family were the top donors to super PACs in the 2012 election, shelling out $93 million. Adelson and his wife gave the RGA $2 million. The late Texas homebuilder Bob Perry gave $2.5 million in 2012. Billionaire hedge fund manager Paul Singer gave $1.25 million, and David Koch gave $1 million.
The RGA’s total spending was $60 million in 2012, according to IRS records, nearly three times what it was in 2008.
It was the single biggest source of outside spending in Wisconsin, New Hampshire, Washington, and North Carolina. It was also likely the biggest spender in Montana, but the state’s lax disclosure requirements make that impossible to verify using public records.
The RGA, and the rival DGA are unincorporated nonprofits that report to the IRS, but are largely unregulated by the Federal Election Commission. They were able to accept unlimited donations from individuals, unions and corporations even before the Citizens United decision, but were technically limited in how and where they could spend their money in some states. The high court’s decision has changed all that.
Besides Walker’s victory, the RGA was also able to claim victory in North Carolina.
In the Tar Heel State, Republican Pat McCrory easily defeated Democrat Walter Dalton with the help of several outside groups, including the RGA, which spent more than $5 million in the race for governor. A group backed by the DGA and the NEA spent $2.6 million trying to help Dalton.
The race was never close and both the RGA and the DGA pulled spending on TV ads in the final weeks. Citizens United made it easier for both groups to operate in the state, as the ban on corporate and union funds for outside spending groups went away.
McCrory became North Carolina’s first Republican governor elected since 1988 and was the only member of his party to win an open governor’s seat last year. His victory helped Republicans cement control of all three branches of government.
One of the most closely watched races last year was for the state Supreme Court, where outside groups spent more than $2.6 million helping Justice Paul Newby retain his seat and maintain a conservative 4-3 advantage on the high court bench.
Outside groups favoring Newby outspent those supporting his opponent Sam Ervin IV by about 35 to 1. One of the ads paid for by an outside group attacked Ervin as untrustworthy.
“As far as I know,” Ervin told the Center for Public Integrity, “there had never been an attack ad in a North Carolina judicial race.”
One of the biggest sources of cash for outside groups active in North Carolina’s judicial races was the Washington, D.C.-based Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC), which spent about $1.2 million to help Newby.
The RSLC is like the RGA’s little brother: a D.C.-based group funded largely by corporate donors that works to elect down-ballot Republicans in state elections. Its chairman is Ed Gillespie, former chairman of the Republican National Committee and close associate of Karl Rove.
Gillespie and Rove, former political strategists for President George W. Bush, co-founded American Crossroads, a well-funded, high-profile super PAC. The RSLC’s president, Chris Jankowski, is a former insurance and tobacco lobbyist.
‘Tort reform’ backers
The RSLC’s biggest donors in 2012 were nonprofits that support so-called tort reform legislation, or efforts to limit damages paid in civil lawsuits. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Institute for Legal Reform was the RSLC’s single biggest donor in 2012, giving $3.5 million.
The nonprofit American Future Fund was the RSLC’s second biggest contributor in 2012, giving nearly $1.2 million. The Iowa-based “social welfare” group has received millions from groups associated with the Koch brothers.
The California Fair Political Practices Commission recently said that the American Future Fund was part of an illegal scheme to circumvent state disclosure laws involving an anti-union ballot measure last year. The Kochs have denied contributing to that effort.The American Future Fund did not respond to requests for comment.
The American Justice Partnership, a pro-tort reform nonprofit, was the third biggest donor to the RSLC at $1.1 million. Neither the Chamber nor the American Justice Partnership is required to disclose its donors.
Several state legislative races in North Carolina were also flooded with large amounts of outside cash. They helped Republicans gain a three-fifths majority in the House to go along with a similar supermajority in the Senate.
Since taking over, Republicans have lowered taxes, cut unemployment benefits, added restrictions for women seeking abortions, cut limits on carrying guns in public places and enacted a voter ID law, which is now the subject of a Justice Department lawsuit.
Total one-party control in statehouses is becoming more common. The 2012 election left only three split state legislatures in the country — Iowa, New Hampshire and Kentucky. The last time the number was so low was 1944, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Arkansas was another Southern state victory for Republican-supporting outside groups. Both chambers flipped from Democratic control to Republican control for the first time since Reconstruction. The election also completed the Republican takeover of state legislatures in the South.
Judging by mailers and ads, outside groups were extremely active in the Arkansas election, though you can’t tell from official state filings. Reports indicate $460,000 in spending, including just over $230,000 by Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform.
The Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity and the 60 Plus Association were both active as was the Faith and Freedom Coalition, whose founder is the prominent social conservative political consultant Ralph Reed.
Arkansas’ lax disclosure laws allowed these groups to avoid having to disclose how much they were spending by running ads and circulating campaign literature that did not tell the audience to vote for or against a candidate.
One Americans for Prosperity mailer, for instance, asked why a targeted candidate was “raising our cost of living” and urged the reader to call the lawmaker “and tell him how you feel about raising prices on Arkansas families.”
The state’s Democratic Party tried to fight back against the group by producing a TV ad starring Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe.
“A Virginia group is using secret money to meddle in our election,” Beebe said in the ad.
Dark money leads to AG success
Republican-backing groups also had success helping to elect GOP attorneys general in Montana and West Virginia, which both elected Democratic governors last year.
The RSLC reported spending $108,000 to Montana state election officials to help its preferred candidate, Tim Fox, win the Republican primary race for attorney general.
But the group was not required to say how much it spent in the general election because the ads it ran did not specifically urge voters to support or oppose a candidate.
Pam Bucy, Fox’s Democratic opponent, says her campaign collected information from local TV and radio stations showing that the RSLC purchased more than $580,000 worth of ad time for the general election. The ads praised Fox for opposing Obamacare.
Fox and Bucy raised a combined $750,000 for their own campaigns, according to the NIMSP; Fox beat Bucy by 35,000 votes.
“When you look at how close my election was, I think it had a dramatic effect,” Bucy said. “I think it denigrates our system; I don’t think it was a clean or fair election.”
In West Virginia, Patrick Morrisey became the state’s first Republican attorney general in 80 years thanks to heavy spending by outside groups.
A former Capitol Hill aide who went on to have a lucrative career as a lobbyist for pharmaceutical companies, Morrisey was helped by more than $2.1 million spent by two nonprofits, according to state records, that don’t reveal their donors, the Northern Virginia-based Center for Individual Freedom and the American Future Fund, the Iowa-based group with ties to the Koch brothers.
Making bank, win or lose
Among the clear winners in last year’s elections: political consultants.
“Citizens United prompted new spending and new business in federal races that many firms are finding can apply to the state level as well,” says Brad Chism, a Democratic political consultant based in Mississippi, whose former firm did direct mail for a number of outside groups in state contests last year.
Much of the outside money flowed from D.C.-based groups to ambiguously named local committees and then back to D.C. where it went into the coffers of big political consulting firms — many of which are active in presidential and other federal races.
Firms based around D.C. were paid nearly $59 million, more than a quarter of all outside spending identified by in the Center investigation.
The biggest beneficiary, however, was in California.
Target Enterprises, a Los Angeles media buying firm, collected nearly $19 million and was the preferred vendor for the RGA. That’s $2 million more than what the firm made off of federal super PACs last year. Nick Ayers, who was executive director of the RGA until early 2011, is a partner at the firm.
Waterfront Strategies and Great American Media, part of D.C.-based Democratic political consulting giant GMMB, combined collected more than $17 million. The D.C.-based firm was paid $81 million in the 2012 election for federal work by several union and progressive super PACs, according to a previous Center report.
Delacey Skinner, a senior vice president at the firm, noted that totals for media buying firms appear large because they include what the firms spent purchasing airtime on TV stations.
One of AFSCME’s favorite media buying firms was the Campaign Group, a Philadelphia-based concern that was paid at least $9.8 million by state-level outside groups last year. When AFSCME’s longtime political director Larry Scanlon announced his retirement last year, he told The Hill he was going to be doing consulting work for the Campaign Group.
A complete view of all the outside spending may never be available. Most state disclosure laws are weaker than what the federal government requires, allowing groups to run overtly political ads without ever having to report the spending.
In Michigan, for example, outside groups officially reported spending $4 million. But a local watchdog combed through records filed at local TV stations and found that the state parties and other outside groups spent at least $18 million on local TV ads in the run-up to the election.
A full picture of the RGA’s spending in Montana is not available. Montana’s campaign finance regulators did not require the RGA to file a state-specific report because it already included the expenditures in its federal filings — although those reports do not include specifics.
New Jersey, Virginia and beyond
Back in New Hampshire, there’s plenty of frustration with how important outside groups have become in state politics, and how they are often behind the most negative ads. Even those on the winning side are concerned.
“They really can be pretty nasty, there’s really no other way to say it,” says Kathy Sullivan, the Hassan advisor and former head of the state Democratic Party. The money is “gross” and so is the lack of disclosure, she says.
Sullivan says she’s seen little appetite on either side of the aisle to curb the influence of outside groups or make their donors more transparent.
Meanwhile, outside groups played outsized roles in state-level elections held earlier this month in New Jersey and Virginia.
In New Jersey, at least $35 million was spent by outside groups on the gubernatorial and legislative races according to the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission, a new record the agency’s executive director called “mind-boggling.”
“It’s a whole new world in New Jersey politics,’’ Jeff Brindle said in a statement.
Union-backed outside groups spent heavily to ensure strong Democratic control of the legislature as a bulwark against Gov. Chris Christie, the popular Republican governor who won re-election.
Outside spending groups reported spending a little more than $3.4 million in Virginia, according to data from the Virginia Public Access Project. But with candidates allowed to receive unlimited donations from businesses and unions, national groups gave millions directly.
The RGA was the single biggest contributor to failed Republican candidate Ken Cuccinelli while the DGA was the top donor to the winner, Democrat Terry McAuliffe.
That’s just a taste of what’s expected next year.
In 2014, there are 36 governorships up for grabs — including in New Hampshire, where governors serve two-year terms.
Rachel Baye contributed to this report.