If the brave new world of campaign finance boasts a capital or two these days, one them just might be New York’s 27th Congressional District. ¶ When a Washington political committee called the American Action Network announced Tuesday that it has reserved $600,000 of television time for Republican Chris Collins against Democratic incumbent Kathleen C. Hochul, even such a staggering sum suddenly seemed routine for the superheated congressional race. ¶ It’s all made possible by the U.S. Supreme Court “Citizens United” ruling in 2010 that cleared the way for unlimited contributions from committees such as American Action Network. That means the Collins-Hochul contest has become one of the magnets for the new outside groups springing up across the nation. ¶ Indeed, most calculations put well over $2 million flowing into both campaigns so far, with more to come. ¶ “This is the reality of the politics we are playing in today,” said Hochul campaign manager Frank Thomas. ¶ With more and more specialized committees entering the political spending community every day, watchdog groups such as the Washington-based Sunlight Foundation say the national numbers will only grow.
“If this pace continues, we could easily see over
$1 billion spent by Election Day,” said Sunlight media director Liz Bartolomeo. “That’s a whole lot of money.”
Her group has identified about $88 million in spending nationally in just the last nine days, she said, as the campaigns enter the final four weeks.
Super PACs (political action committees) and related organizations have been around for a few years now but are gaining steam in closely watched contests such as the one between Hochul and Collins. After Hochul won a 2011 special election for a seat held by the GOP for generations, both parties have homed in on the 2012 race as a major priority.
For sure, Collins and Hochul have raised a fair share of their own campaign money, especially Hochul. She reported spending $2.2 million through June 30 (much of that stemming from last year’s special election).
But in the newest cycle, outside groups that, by law, must operate independently from the candidates, are pouring in their own money. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, for example, dropped about $200,000 in the district for Collins in May and is back again with another TV buy estimated at $200,000.
The National Republican Congressional Committee, or NRCC, has said that it will spend about $575,000 for Collins, while a sister group to the American Action Network – called the Congressional Leadership Fund – also said this week that it is sponsoring thousands of automated phone calls in the district at a hefty price tag it will not disclose.
Why so much money?
Mainly, because it’s there. American Action Network spokesman Dan Conston said this week that his group has at least $13.5 million to spend nationally this year.
“In the case of ‘NY 27,’ it’s a key opportunity for us to expand the House battlefield and win back a seat that should be in Republican hands,” he said. “Kathy Hochul does not reflect the district.”
His American Action Network (which includes on its board of directors former Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds, R-Clarence) describes itself as a “center right issue advocacy organization” that also promotes legislation.
He did not venture, however, into controversial aspects of the organizations – such as the lack of any requirement for some of the groups to report the source of their donations.
“That’s a question better left to the campaigns,” he said.
Bartolomeo said that about half of the groups operating under the new rules face no requirement to report their donors.
Thomas, Hochul’s spokesman, said that identifying the source of donations is preferred, even though the Hochul campaign has accepted about $500,000 from similar groups, including the House Majority PAC, which wants to return control of that chamber to Democrats.
“I think Western New Yorkers, by and large, would want to see who is financing the campaigns, and they are not able to do it,” Thomas said.
Collins adviser Christopher M. Grant said that while the candidate reported spending only $195,000 as of June 30, the proliferation of outside group financing demonstrates support for his campaign on a national level.
“It really is an indication that folks not just in the district, but outside the district believe Chris is a good candidate,” he said.
Grant then added the traditional Collins campaign answer to questions about the campaign’s financing.
“Chris has always said the resources will be there,” Grant said.
Hochul, meanwhile, has proved a ferocious fundraiser in her own right. Sources close to her campaign say she has raised about $730,000 in the last quarter – a staggering amount for a Western New York congressional candidate.
“More than 10,000 people have donated to Kathy’s campaign, while [Collins] has not seen nearly that level of support,” Thomas said. “[The outside groups] have to do his dirty work for him.”
But outside financing appears to be on the upswing, with no sign of any change in the trend. The Sunlight Foundation said the trend is notable even in a solidly Democratic state such as New York, where several spending groups are supporting Republican Randy Altschuler in his rematch against Democratic incumbent Tim Bishop on Long Island. The foundation said that, according to Follow the Unlimited Money, Republican groups such as Prosperity First, Crossroads GPS and the NRCC put more than $1 million into the race. Only the House Majority PAC has come to Bishop’s aid, with less than $130,000.
In Central New York, Republican freshman Rep. Anne Marie Buerkle has received $840,000 in support from outside groups, while only the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has helped former Rep. Dan Maffei with $450,000 in media buys, according to the foundation.
Bartolomeo said bills before Congress have attempted to expand the disclosure process but have never survived Republican opposition.
“We are hopeful,” she said, “that come the new session, Congress will take up the bill and pass it.”