Ten years ago, it was 527 groups and Pioneer bundlers for George W. Bush. In 2008, Barack Obama took the nation’s top office by storm as soft money ruled. Last election cycle, super PACs were all the rage. In 2014, campaign finance reform has given way to dark money, with unknown sources of indirect campaign spending dropping hundreds of millions of dollars to influence federal races.
“Who are these people, and what do they want with the state’s Senate race? Who are these interests, and what is motivating them?” asked Sheila Krumholz, director of the Center of Responsive Politics, in reference to the burgeoning political fundraising tactic.
Dark money, about $200 million of which has been spent nationally this election cycle, is secretive money generated by nonprofit organizations whose primary purposes are not legally considered “political”.
“We can see where the money comes from going to the candidates’ campaigns and going to some of the outside groups,” Krumholz said. “But for politically active nonprofits, we have absolutely no idea who’s bankrolling their efforts.” She blamed anonymous donors for giving voters “inaccurate, misleading and deceptive information to make up their minds.”
The North Carolina Senate race between incumbent Democrat Kay Hagan and Republican challenger Thom Tillis has set records for out-of-state funding: $75 million as of Oct. 30. The candidates combined have raised only half as much as outsiders have dished out, and the total race spending exceeds $107 million.
Over $20 million of the outside money has been spent attacking Tillis – more than on opposing any other candidate nationally. Hagan has benefited from the Senate Majority PAC and Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, the two largest contributors. But much of the money spent against Hagan, who carries a slight lead, is not reported to the Federal Election Commission (FEC), and so it cannot be tracked precisely. However, there is somewhat of a paper trail for broadcast negative ads.
Not far behind the North Carolina face-off are close Senate contests in Iowa, where Republican Joni Ernst is polling just ahead of Bruce Braley for an open seat, and Colorado, where Democratic Sen. Mark Udall is fending off a challenge from Republican Rep. Cory Gardner. Outside spending makes up more than two-thirds of overall funds used to influence both outcomes.