Congressional candidates aren’t the only ones who spend big money before federal elections. Organizations linked to political parties, corporations and unions sometimes spend more than the candidates themselves to sway voters.
The level of their independent expenditures soared after the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, which held that political spending is constitutionally protected free speech and said the government couldn’t keep corporations or unions from spending money to back or oppose candidates.
Statistics from the Center for Responsive Politics indicate that outside groups have spent roughly $1 billion to influence federal elections so far this year. Of that money, $18.2 million has been spent on U.S. House of Representatives races in Ohio, and $5.3 million has been spent on its U.S. Senate race, according to a running tally of independent expenditures compiled by ProPublica.
A 2014 study on outside election spending co-authored by Ohio State University election law expert Daniel Tokaji found such groups sometimes coordinate with campaigns in a behind-the-scenes way. It also found evidence that independent expenditures affect lawmakers’ behavior.
“A candidate may have limited information about the outside spending in her race in real time, but may learn more about the spending after the election,” the study said. “The expectation that the same group or donors will make similar efforts two years later may affect the Member’s legislative behavior during the interim.”
In an interview, Tokaji said ads from outside groups can affect who voters support, and whether they head to the polls.
“An ad can make someone who wouldn’t otherwise have turned out angry enough or passionate enough that they will come out and vote,” Tokaji said. “Sometimes, it can have the opposite effect by inducing someone not to vote because they don’t like either candidate.”
He said the spending gives wealthy individuals and corporations a greater voice in national politics, leaving many voters with a sense that the system is broken because elected officials serve special interests instead of “we the people.”
“That sense is at the heart of the frustration and anti-system candidacies we are seeing in recent years, including but not limited to President Trump,” said Tokaji.
Outside interests don’t drop big money in districts where the incumbent is viewed as a shoo-in. Eleven of Ohio’s 16 congressional districts have had less than $150,000 spent by outside groups. And some have seen barely any spending.
For example, just $78 has been spent in the safely Democratic district represented by Toledo’s Marcy Kaptur, who FiveThirtyEight gives a a 99.9 percent chance of re-election. And that money was spent by political action committees associated with the National Education Association and Planned Parenthood to support Kaptur.
The vast majority of outside spending has happened in Ohio’s most competitive races. Here’s a look at the Ohio contests that special interests have spent more than $150,000 to influence:
12th District – Democrat Danny O’Connor vs. Republican Troy Balderson
So far this year, outside groups have poured more than $9.5 million into the Columbus-area congressional district that was left without a congressman when established GOP Rep. Pat Tiberi retired to head the Ohio Business Roundtable. The district has drawn the most outside campaign cash in Ohio.
Some of the money was spent during hotly contested primaries in which both parties selected their nominees. After that, outside groups spent even more before an Aug. 7 special election to fill the remainder of Tiberi’s term.
Republican Troy Balderson narrowly won that contest. He faces a rematch next week with the Democrat he defeated – Franklin County Recorder Danny O’Connor – whose campaign has raised and spent three times as much as Balderson’s.
Republican organizations have stepped in to help the former state legislator from Zanesville hang onto the seat despite his fundraising disadvantage. Tallies by ProPublica show they’ve spent $7.1 million so far to help Balderson, while groups sympathetic to O’Connor have spent around $1.5 million.
The Congressional Leadership Fund – which is aligned with current House Speaker Paul Ryan – has spent by far the most money in the race: close to $3.3 million on expenses like television, radio, and digital ads. The group says its staff and volunteers also knocked on over 500,000 doors to help Balderson win the special election.
The National Republican Congressional Committee, which is headed by Columbus-area GOP Rep. Steve Stivers, has spent the next highest amount on the race: $1.3 million. The Trump-affiliated America First Action PAC is in third place, spending $1.1 million. All were assisting Balderson.
The Democratic party’s counterpart to Stivers’ group – the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee – spent more than $600,000 to aid O’Connor, and he’s also had help from groups including House Majority PAC and the The Progressive Turnout Project.
Winning the special election gave Balderson an incumbency edge in next week’s rematch, but it is still seen as a potential Democratic pickup. The Cook Political Report calls it a “toss-up,” while FiveThirtyEight gives O’Connor a one in three shot of winning.
1st District – Democrat Aftab Pureval vs. Republican Steve Chabot