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Outside spending in federal races has already surpassed $1 billion with over a month to go before Election Day, putting the 2020 election on track to see far more outside spending than previous election cycles.
That’s according to OpenSecrets’ outside spending tracker, which follows attempts by super PACs, political parties, and “dark money” nonprofits, among other outside groups, to influence elections.
Democratic enthusiasm to unseat President Donald Trump and Republican senators — and major GOP donors’ efforts to counter Democrats’ record-breaking fundraising totals — have driven outside spending totals to new highs.
At this point in the 2016 election, outside spending totaled $819 million, a much lower figure despite unprecedented super PAC spending in that year’s Republican presidential primaries. Outside spending played less of a role in the 2012 election, the first presidential election cycle after the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling that has since inundated federal races with outside money.
Democratic nominee Joe Biden has benefited most from outside spending, while Trump has been hit hardest. Biden is backed by a number of Democratic groups flush with cash from wealthy donors and affiliated dark money groups. Priorities USA Action, American Bridge 21st Century and Unite the Country have spent a combined $128 million backing Biden over Trump primarily with TV and online ads. The Lincoln Project, a group run by Never-Trump Republicans, added nearly $20 million in ads opposing Trump or backing Biden, and another $100 million is on its way from billionaire Michael Bloomberg to boost Biden in Florida.
In the presidential race, outside spending backing Biden or opposing Trump totals $247 million, compared to nearly $167 million spent boosting Trump or opposing Biden. That discrepancy was larger just a few weeks ago before a group called Preserve America PAC popped up and spent $52 million on an anti-Biden ad campaign. Launched to counter the many well-funded Democratic groups, the new super PAC has not yet disclosed its donors but is expected to draw money from major GOP donors such as Sheldon Adelson and Bernie Marcus.
Democratic and Republican outside groups are neck-and-neck in critical Senate races that could decide control of the upper chamber in states like North Carolina, Iowa, and Maine. Democrats’ Senate Majority PAC and Republicans’ Senate Leadership Fund are the second and third highest outside spenders, shelling out $71 million and $68 million, respectively. Among political parties, the National Republican Senatorial Committee has outspent its Democratic counterpart $57 million to $18 million.
Key Senate races were already drawing significant attention before the passing of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg last week. The incoming battle for the high court has boosted Democrats’ fundraising and will lead to an influx of spending from dark money groups focused on judicial nominations.
Outside spending on House races was the focus in the 2018 election cycle, but resources are increasingly being dedicated to Senate contests this cycle. Freshman House Democrats have a massive edge over Republican challengers with fundraising and polling. While outside spending on Senate races totals $436 million, House races have drawn just $176 million. Republican groups are pulling their ads in key House races, including contests in Texas.
Continuing a trend from previous election cycles, outside spending in the 2020 contest is dominated by super PACs and hybrid PACs. Direct dark money spending is down from previous election cycles, mostly because these non-disclosing groups have instead spent on “issue ads” — spending that isn’t reported to the Federal Election Commission — and funneled money to closely tied super PACs. The top presidential outside groups are boosted by dark money donations, as are the top super PACs dedicated to Senate races.