U.S. Sen. David Vitter, a Republican candidate for governor of Louisiana, would like voters to forget his past connection to a notorious prostitution ring.
But there’s a new political group in the Pelican State that isn’t going to let that happen.
“A New Orleans prostitute says Vitter was a regular,” say TV ads sponsored by the Louisiana Water Coalition, a group backed by a law firm that battles oil and gas companies. “We can do better than Vitter.”
Such political groups, independent from the candidates or political parties usually active on the airwaves, are playing a much larger role in state elections than a year ago, a Center for Public Integrity analysis of television advertising data shows.
So far this year, independent groups account for roughly 23 percent of TV ad dollars spent in the seven states with major races. That’s more than the 15 percent of spending that such groups had in a similar time period in 2014 races, or the nearly 19 percent of spending at this point in 2011 when voters in those states last had comparable elections.
In total, as of Sept. 28, an estimated $22.1 million has been spent airing state-level political ads on broadcast TV in those states, with roughly $5.1 million of it paid for by such independent political groups, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of data from media tracking firm Kantar Media/CMAG.
The firm monitors 211 media markets around the country and offers a widely accepted estimate of the money spent to air each spot. The figures do not include ads for radio, the Internet, direct mail or TV ads that aired on local cable systems. The estimates also do not include the cost of making the ads.
Though this year’s races are often drowned out by the circus surrounding the 2016 presidential candidates, the growing role of independent political groups in state races tells a broader tale of their influence up and down the ballot, from governors' races to state senate elections.
Able to do the political mudslinging that candidates themselves typically try to avoid, independent groups are airing heated television attacks on candidates for governor in Louisiana and Kentucky. A conservative Arizona group is targeting attorneys general in Louisiana and Mississippi. In an April vote in Wisconsin, a liberal group helped sink a judge’s bid to join the state’s Supreme Court. Independent groups are also airing ads supporting candidates in the races for Louisiana's education board and the New Jersey Assembly.
The door opened for such independent groups to spend more on election ads after the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling and related cases said nonprofits, corporations and labor unions could spend unlimited sums to convince voters to elect candidates. Dozens of states had to change their campaign finance rules to align with the court’s decision.
Just last year, a judge struck down a Louisiana law that capped donations to such independent political groups, paving the way for the Louisiana Water Coalition and others to raise unlimited funds.
With outside groups playing a larger role in state elections, voters may not know who’s behind the most vitriolic election ads they see. Some of the groups do not have to disclose their donors. Some use alternate names that obscure their identities.