The Top Ten Dark Money Down-Ballot Races

Conservative dark money groups have poured more than $55 million so far into U.S. House and Senate elections this cycle, according to an analysis by Dark Money Watch and MapLight.

Liberal dark money organizations have spent over $19 million, the analysis found.

Most of the $80 million in spending reported by more than 90 dark money groups across the political spectrum has gone to races that could determine which party controls the Senate.

But the reported spending likely doesn’t include all of the expenditures made by those organizations. Dark money groups — politically active nonprofits and limited liability corporations — do not have to publicly disclose their donors and do not have report all of their political spending to the Federal Election Commission. By law, these organizations can spend unlimited amounts of money on ads, mailers, and other materials advocating for or opposing a candidate or issue — as long as the expenditures are made independently of campaigns.

The vast majority of dark money spending in this election cycle has come from a handful of politically active nonprofits. The top three biggest spenders so far — the U.S. Chamber of Commerce; Americans for Prosperity, a conservative dark money organization supported by billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch; and the National Rifle Association — account for more than half of all reported dark money spending on House and Senate elections.

Below are the ten Congressional races where dark money groups are spending the most this cycle, according to the analysis.

  1. Pennsylvania Senate – $14.9 million

The too-close-to-call contest between incumbent Republican Pat Toomey and his Democratic challenger, Katie McGinty, is now the most expensive Senate race in U.S. history, according to CNBC. It’s also one of six battles that could determine whether the GOP maintains its majority in the Senate.

The Chamber has spent $5.1 million in support of Toomey’s re-election bid, while Americans For Prosperity has spent $1.5 million.

The dark money groups boosting McGinty’s campaign include Majority Forward, which has spent $2.5 million on ads critical of Toomey, the Environmental Defense Action Fund and the League of Conservation Voters, which have spent more than $2.4 million combined.

  1. Ohio Senate – $11.3 million

Liberal and conservative dark money groups have been moving some of their resources elsewhere, now that Republican incumbent Rob Portman has a sizable lead in polls over his Democratic rival, Ted Strickland. But when the race was considered close, the organizations pumped millions into the Buckeye state.

The Chamber and Americans for Prosperity spent $4.6 million and $2.3 million respectively to boost Portman’s campaign.

Working America, Stand up for Ohio, the SEIU, the Ohio Environmental Council Action Fund and the League of Conservation Voters put in a combined $1.3 million to aid Strickland’s bid.

  1. Florida Senate – $9.9 million

While polls show a tight race between the Republican incumbent, Sen. Marco Rubio, and Democratic Rep. Patrick Murphy, the dark money spending has overwhelmingly favored Rubio.

American Future Fund has spent $2.6 million on ads critical of Murphy. The organization also spent millions attacking Rubio’s primary opponents during his unsuccessful presidential bid. Americans for Prosperity has spent $2.1 million supporting Rubio, the NRA has spent $1.7 million, and the Chamber has spent $1.5 million.

Much of this spending has gone to ads criticizing Murphy or advocating for Rubio. One ad paid for by the Chamber highlighted news reports questioning Murphy’s resume.

The dark money groups supporting Murphy — AFT Solidarity, America’s Voice, People for the American Way and Working America — have spent about $915,000.

  1. Nevada Senate – $8.9 million

With Sen. Minority Leader Harry Reid retiring, dark money groups have spent millions on the battle to replace him. Polls show that the race between Democrat Catherine Cortez Masto and Republican Joe Heck is a dead heat.

The Chamber has spent $3.6 million and the NRA almost $1.5 million to support Heck. Americans for Prosperity has reported spending $270,706 and has put resources into a ground campaign advocating for Heck.

Cortez Masto’s bid has received support from three dark money organizations: Majority Forward, which is affiliated with the Senate Majority PAC and has spent more than $251,000; the League of Conservation Voters, which has spent nearly $980,000; and the Environmental Defense Action Fund, which has spent more than $400,000.

  1. Indiana Senate – $5.7 million

Most of the dark money in this race is aimed at defeating Democrat Evan Bayh, who is running for a seat he last held in 2011, when he retired from the Senate.

Although Bayh became an adviser to the Chamber when he left office, his former employer (as of June) has spent more than $2.5 million aimed at helping his rival, Republican Rep. Todd Young. The Chamber’s political director told the Indianapolis Star the group decided to oppose Bayh because “his voting record is reflexively liberal when it matters most.”

In addition to the Chamber, the NRA has spent $1.9 million and Americans for Prosperity has spent almost $1 million to stop Bayh from reclaiming his Senate seat.

  1. North Carolina Senate – $4.7 million

Dark money has been streaming into the Tar Heel state in the final weeks of the election, with most of it aimed at helping the incumbent Republican Richard Burr, who, polls show, has a slim lead over former Democrat Deborah Ross.

Since Sept. 27, the NRA has pumped over $1.9 million into the race, spending big on television advertisements and mailers to oppose Ross. Americans for Prosperity and One Nation, a dark money group linked to GOP strategist Karl Rove, together have spent nearly $1.3 million against Ross.

Ross, meanwhile, has benefited from a significant investment by labor. The AFL-CIO has reported spending over $900,000 against Burr.

  1. Missouri Senate – $4.0 million

As the race between Republican Sen. Roy Blunt and Secretary of State Jason Kander has tightened, dark money has poured in from liberal and conservative groups.

Blunt’s re-election bid has received support from Americans for Prosperity, which has spent $725,000; the NRA and One Nation, which have each spent about $480,000; and the American Chemistry Council, which lobbies on behalf of chemical companies and has spent nearly $292,000. Most of that money has gone to ads and mailers attacking Kander.

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees has spent over $1 million, and Majority Forward has spent about $829,000 on ads attacking Blunt.

  1. New Hampshire Senate – $3.3 million

Republican Kelly Ayotte’s support of Donald Trump could determine the outcome of this hotly contested race. The incumbent Ayotte, who called Trump a “role model,” before saying she had made “a mistake,” is running against Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan.

The dark money groups boosting Ayotte’s re-election bid include the Chamber, which has spent $1.9 million, and One Nation, which has spent over $700,000. Citizens for Responsible Energy Solutions, a conservative group that has received funding from nonprofit groups traditionally associated with Democrats, has spent over $450,000. The organization released an ad this summer calling Ayotte a leader who will “protect the legacy of this environment.”

Hassan’s campaign has received outside support from gun safety and reproductive rights advocates. The National Abortion Rights Action League has spent more than $103,000, and Everytown for Gun Safety, a group backed by Michael Bloomberg, has spent about $27,500.

  1. Nevada Congressional District 3 – $2.0 million

The Republican primary race for the congressional seat being vacated by Heck saw a torrent of dark money spending in support of state Sen. Michael Roberson’s failed bid.

A group called Ending Spending poured more than $1.6 million into the race, running ads backing Roberson and bashing his opponents, including the eventual primary winner, Danny Tarkanian. Ending Spending doesn’t disclose its donors, but it is associated with Joe Ricketts, the conservative billionaire who founded AmeriTrade.

Main Street Advocacy, a group that supports moderate Republicans, chipped in $250,000 to boost Roberson’s bid.

Dark money does not appear to be a factor in the general election, where Tarkanian is running against Democrat Jacky Rosen.

  1. Wisconsin Senate – $1.9 million

Republican Ron Johnson upset Democrat Russ Feingold in 2010, part of the Tea Party wave that swept through Congress. Now Feingold is trying to recapture his Senate seat, and polls show him in the lead.

The Chamber has spent $750,300 to help keep Wisconsin red, while the NRA has spent almost $269,000 and Americans for Prosperity, which backed Johnson in 2010, has spent almost $200,000.

Feingold’s bid has received support from the Environmental Defense Action Fund, which has spent more than $468,000; J Street, a liberal Jewish advocacy group, which has spent $125,000; and Everytown for Gun Safety, the Bloomberg-backed gun control group, which has spent $20,000.


Methodology: MapLight analysis of data on electioneering communications, independent expenditures by organizations, and communication costs in 2016 election cycle available from the Federal Election Commission as of October 19, 2016. Organizations’ ideological views are from the Center for Responsive Politics. Expenditures opposing one of two candidates in a race is assumed to support the opposing candidate.

This Week In Local Dark Money News

 Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images

When it comes to dark money — money spent trying to influence voters by groups that do not disclose their donors — the focus is often on the federal level. But a considerable amount of dark money is also going to state and local elections. Our weekly roundup looks at dark money spending at the state and federal levels.


The Guardian obtained a series of documents detailing how Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s recall campaign encouraged some wealthy individuals to support him by contributing to an outside spending group that acted as a “shadow campaign committee.” Wisconsin prosecutors assembled the documents as part of an investigation into possible campaign finance violations. The conservative state Supreme Court stopped the investigation, declaring that prosecutors had misunderstood the state’s campaign finance laws, and ordered the documents be destroyed. However, the files were leaked to The Guardian. The papers show that Walker’s campaign frequently told donors to give their money to Wisconsin Club For Growth, a conservative social welfare organization that can accept unlimited donations without disclosing its donors. Prosecutors, who argued that funneling the contributions through the group violated state and federal laws, have filed an appeal with the U.S. Supreme Court. The high court is expected to announce soon whether it will take the case.


Dark money is flowing to state judicial contests, according to a new study of primary races by The Brennan Center for Justice. “Polling shows that 95 percent of the public believes campaign spending influences how judges rule in cases,” said Alicia Bannon, Senior Counsel in the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center. “With the rise of outside spenders that do not disclose their donors, we can’t even identify potential conflicts of interest. This poses a major threat to the integrity of our justice system.” The Brennan Center will be posting periodic information and analysis on those races on their Supreme Court Elections page.


A Florida state appeals court issued a temporary decree Thursday that keeps a measure restricting campaign contributions off Miami-Dade County’s November ballot, The Miami Herald reports. The measure would have banned contractors who do work for the county and their lobbyists from donating to most candidates for county office and limit campaign contributions to $250. County commissioners had initially voted to keep the measure off the ballot, but a lower court judge last week ruled that “elected commissioners, whose reelection efforts thrive on lobbyist and vendor donations, could not block the petition drive.” County lawyers immediately appealed the ruling, and a stay was in effect until the appeals court issued its decision. Opponents of the measure say that the court’s decision not to lift the stay, although temporary, is a clear indication of the judges’ final ruling.


Outside groups spent nearly half a million dollars on New Hampshire’s Tuesday primary races, according to New Hampshire Public Radio. The vast majority of that money — $431,941 — was spent on the governor’s race. Colin Van Ostern, who won the Democratic gubernatorial primary, received $259618 in support from outside groups, including a joint donation to him and Republican candidate Jeanie Forrester. Forrester received $226,921 in support from outside groups and placed fourth in the Republican gubernatorial primary. Executive Councilor Chris Sununu was declared the winner of that race Wednesday, when state Representative Frank Edelblut conceded. Edelblut was within 1,000 votes of Sununu, and could have asked for a recount, but did not. Outside groups also spent $67,115 supporting state legislative candidates.


This Week In Local Dark Money News

When it comes to dark money — money spent trying to influence voters by groups that do not disclose their donors — the focus is often on the federal level. But a considerable amount of dark money is also going to state and local elections. Our weekly roundup looks at dark money spending at the state and federal levels.

Dark money represents thirty percent — or $565,000 — of the $1.9 million spent so far by outside groups on Arizona’s elections, according to the Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting. Another 45 percent of the money spent by groups other than candidates cannot be traced back to its original source. The Center says this so-called “gray money” often comes from corporations that fund independent expenditure committees, which then report the income as a business contribution. According to the Center, SolarCity provided all of the funding for one group, Save Our AZ Solar. The outside spending group then used some of that money to advocate for the re-election of Bob Burns to the Arizona Corporation Commission, which oversees the state’s public utilities. Burns is currently investigating whether Arizona’s largest power supplier used dark money groups to influence the elections of two other commissioners.

Americans For Prosperity, a group founded by the Koch brothers, is mobilizing a grassroots campaign in North Carolina to support Republican U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, Buzzfeed reports. The group is concerned that a lack of field organization on the part of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign may be hurting down-ballot candidates. AFP will go door-to-door to talk to voters, make calls and send out mailers targeting Burr’s Democratic opponent, Deborah Ross.

A former Republican state legislator in Montana has agreed to settle charges that he took illegal campaign contributions from a dark money group during a 2010 election, the Montana Standard reports. Dan Kennedy is one of nine candidates sued by the state’s Commissioner of Political Practices for violating campaign finance laws by accepting illegal contributions from corporate groups. Those groups were affiliated with the National Right to Work Committee, an anti-union 501(c)(4) organization. Kennedy has agreed to pay $19,599 to settle the charges.

The Los Angeles Times editorial board is urging Californians to vote against Proposition 59, a ballot measure that would encourage the state’s elected officials to use “all of their constitutional authority” to overturn the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. The high court’s ruling, issued in 2010, allowed corporations and unions to spend unlimited amounts of money on elections, as long as that spending is independent of candidate campaigns. The Times’ editorial board argues that “simple legislation,” rather than a constitutional amendment proposed in Prop. 59, could address “many of the evils for which [the ruling] has become a metaphor.” The board is also concerned that the advisory measure is too vague and doesn’t specify what a proposed amendment would say.

This Week In Local Dark Money News

When it comes to dark money — money spent trying to influence voters by groups that do not disclose their donors — the focus is often on the federal level. But a considerable amount of dark money is also going to state and local elections. Our weekly roundup looks at dark money spending at the state and federal levels.

A federal judge has determined that the conservative nonprofit group Citizens United must disclose information about its donors, or stop soliciting funds in New York, Reuters reports. The group had sued to stop New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman from enforcing rules requiring it disclose its donors, citing its first amendment rights. However, U.S. District Judge Sidney Stein found no evidence that donors would face public backlash or financial harm if donors were disclosed, and therefore ruled the group’s first amendment rights were not violated. Citizens United was the plaintiff in the Supreme Court case Citizens United v. FEC. The high court’s decision in that case allowed corporations and unions to spend unlimited amounts of money in elections, provided they do so independent of candidates.

A joint study by the Center for Responsive Politics and the Wesleyan Media Project has found that outside groups have paid for nearly half of all ads in Senate races this cycle.The percentage is even higher in competitive races. Outside groups — including dark money groups that don’t have to disclose their donors — accounted for 80 percent of ads in Ohio, Pennsylvania and New Hampshire.

The week has not been a good one for Democrat Ted Strickland, of Ohio. On Tuesday, The Washington Post reported that top Democratic groups had delayed their ad buys in the state. The same day, The Hill revealed that a super PAC associated with the billionaire Koch brothers had canceled an ad buy supporting his opponent, Sen. Rob Portman. Strickland has fallen behind in recent polls in Ohio, and the moves by outside groups to pull or delay ad buys indicate that they are confident the race is becoming less competitive.

The Senate race in Nevada has become a proxy war between outgoing U.S. Senator Harry Reid and the Koch brothers, according to the New York Times. Sen. Reid is supporting Democratic nominee Catherine Cortez Masto, while the Kochs are supporting Republican Rep. Joe Heck. Freedom Partners Action Fund, Concerned Veterans for America, Americans for Prosperity and The Libre Initiative, all outside groups associated with the Kochs, are working to mobilize voters against Ms. Cortez Masto. Meanwhile the Senate Majority PAC, a super PAC associated with Sen. Reid, is working to elect Cortez Masto, as are other outside liberal groups including the League of Conservation Voters. A poll taken in July indicates the race is too close to call.

This Week In Local Dark Money News

When it comes to dark money — money spent trying to influence voters by groups that do not disclose their donors — the focus is often on the federal level. But a considerable amount of dark money is also going to state and local elections. Our weekly roundup looks at dark money spending at the state and federal levels.


A group backed by billionaires Charles and David Koch will launch ads to support Republican Senate candidates in Nevada, Ohio and Pennsylvania, Time reports. The ads were previewed at the Koch’s annual donor retreat in Colorado Springs, CO. The group is also considering ad buys to support Republican Senatorial candidates in Florida, Wisconsin, and Indiana. At the retreat, Charles Koch reiterated that he would not support Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton in the presidential race.

The Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting has created a twitter bot to help monitor dark money in the state, KJZZ reports. The bot, @AZDarkMoneyBot, tweets in nearly real time, reporting when a dark money group spends money on an election. Evan Wyloge, who helped develop the bot, told KJZZ that he hopes the public will use it to monitor dark money spending in the state’s elections. Earlier this year, the state’s legislature passed a law ceding most of Arizona’s ability to regulate dark money spending to the IRS, effectively eliminating donor disclosure requirements.

Republican Rep. Tim Huelskamp of Kansas, a three-term incumbent and member of the House Freedom Caucus, lost his primary bid Tuesday night. According to Politico, the race between Huelskamp and Roger Marshall had become a proxy battle between hard-line conservatives and their more establishment counterparts. Outside groups spent more than $2.5 million on the race. McClatchy reported that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the most active dark money group so far in the 2016 election cycle, spent $200,000 on ads to support Marshall, and another $200,000 on ads attacking Huelskamp. Speaking to reporters on election night, Huelskamp blamed the large amount of outside money in the race for his loss.

A supporter of U.S. Rep. Diane Black (R-Tennessee) has filed a complaint against a dark money group with the Federal Election Commission, The Tennessean reports. The complaint alleges that Power of Liberty, a politically active nonprofit that funded a series of negative ads against Black during the primary campaign, should have reported those spots as electioneering communications to the FEC. An ad is an electioneering communication if it runs 60 days before a general election or 30 days before a primary and refers to a clearly identified federal candidate. The ads against Black met both criteria, according to the complaint. However, the group’s registered agent, conservative activist Steve Gill, has said Power of Liberty will only report its spending to the IRS, not the FEC. Spending on electioneering ads over $10,000 must be reported to the FEC within 24 hours; while other forms of spending by politically active nonprofits may not be disclosed until after an election. Despite the ads, Black won the Republican primary Thursday night by wide margin over her opponent, Joe Carr.

On Tuesday, Eric Greitens won Missouri’s Republican gubernatorial primary. Greitens’ ability to attract large campaign contributions was an advantage in the hotly contested race, although he has faced scrutiny over some of those donations. As we previously noted, Greitens received a nearly $2 million contribution from a super PAC that won’t have to reveal its donors until October. He has also been criticized for refusing to return a donation from a venture capitalist who was later accused of sexual abuse. Greitens will face Democrat Chris Koster, the state’s attorney general, in November.