Inside Public Integrity

Published — November 14, 2013 Updated — May 19, 2014 at 12:19 pm ET

Was the glut of outside spending in 2012 state races just the start?

You can expect more money — and ads — pouring into state races next year based on new Center analysis of 2012 election


The Consider the Source project is the Center for Public Integrity’s vehicle for focusing on transparency and accountability and the tracking of money in politics.

“So Damn Much Money,” to quote the title of Robert Kaiser’s 2010 book, is deluging our political system at all levels. And increasingly these funds are being spent by outside groups, not by the candidates themselves.

The Center’s latest outside spending report — “Puppet States: National Power Brokers Pull Strings in State Elections” — makes this abundantly clear. After studying outside spending in 38 states, the Center found that nonprofits, super PACs, and other non-candidate groups reported spending at least $209 million to influence elections in the 2012 cycle. Our work analyzes data from the National Institute on Money in State Politics (NIMSP) and state elections offices.

Pro-Democratic groups, many associated with unions, outspent their Republican counterparts by more than $8 million, according to the Center’s analysis. In total, pro-labor groups reported spending nearly $44 million in 2012 in those same states.

More than one out of every two dollars spent originated from groups funded primarily or entirely by out-of-state donors. Even seemingly local entities, like state parties, were recipients of huge influxes of outside cash. And these totals may not include spending on so-called “issue ads,” which often favor a candidate but are vaguely worded enough to avoid reporting requirements.

The Citizens United decision allows corporations and unions to spend as much as they want on ads supporting or opposing candidates, as long as they don’t coordinate with campaigns. The ruling had a powerful impact on federal races but also made it easier than ever for outside groups to raise and spend cash on state races.

The high court ruling invalidated prohibitions on corporate and union spending in 24 states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Despite the gains by Democrats, the single most prolific source of funds used in outside spending campaigns was the Republican Governors Association (RGA). 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.

Unions have been critical of the Citizens United decision in the past. In January 2012, on the second anniversary of the case, the AFL-CIO issued a statement saying the case “seriously undermined our democracy.” According to the union’s leadership, “The Citizens United ruling further tilted the playing field in favor of the 1 percent and against the 99 percent whose voices are being drowned out by excessive corporate spending and influence.”

While Republicans have enjoyed the support of wealthy donors and business interests, the Democrats have also managed to recruit their own cast of billionaires to go along with steady support from a host of national unions.

This is the spending picture the Center’s report shows for the first time, detailing just how much union funding was a factor in 2012 state elections.

We can expect much more outside spending by all sides next year, in the 2014 elections, where some 36 state governorships are on the ballot.

Until next week,


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