Outside spending in legislative races has already trumped the 2018 election cycle with two-plus weeks still to go until Election Day, recent campaign finance reports show.
Independent expenditure groups – which can invest unlimited money in districts to either support or oppose a given candidate, so long as they don’t coordinate with any candidate or candidate’s committee – are propping up campaigns on both sides of the aisle, in some cases outspending the lawmakers to-be they’re supporting.
Up to this point in the cycle, these groups have spent almost $12 million on legislative candidates, almost $5 million more than they spent in legislative races in the entirety of the 2018 election term. (This number does not include the gargantuan sums spent in that year’s gubernatorial election.)
This, if not the most ever, is certainly up there, said Chad Campbell, a former House Democratic minority leader now with the left-leaning public affairs firm Strategies 360, which has done some work for dark money PAC Opportunity Arizona.
“Arizona is the most expensive media market in the country now,” he said. “It’s ground zero in some ways for changing the dynamic of the country from the federal level to the state level, so that’s why you’re seeing all this money coming in.”
More than a quarter of that $12 million came from Forward Majority Arizona, the local affiliate of a national Democratic PAC working in several states to flip Republican-controlled legislatures. Arizona, with its slim legislative margins and changing demographics, is one of its top targets. The group has spent around $3.5 million this cycle – $700,000 of which came in the last two weeks – more than double its $1.5 million expenditure in 2018.
“With Joe Biden and Mark Kelly leading in more and more polls at the top of the ticket, there’s increasing opportunity to flip the state House and the state Senate,” said Ben Wexler-Waite, the group’s communications director. “We want to make sure there’s infrastructure in place to make that happen.”
Most recently, the group launched a series of television ads attacking Sen. J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, who has magnetized IE spending like few others, not a surprise given that Democrats covet his seat this year. Mesnard has benefited from almost $400,000 spent in his favor, with just over the same amount spent to attack him.
Democrats, historically, have been skittish about outside spending, especially from so-called “dark money” groups that don’t report their contributors. But with Republicans lacking any such compunction – and a national election that centers Arizona – that has changed in recent years.
“What you need to do is win – and then clean up the (campaign finance) system,” said Campbell. “You can’t do it if you’re in the minority.”
Still, several Democratic lawmakers who spoke to the Arizona Capitol Times are hesitant to embrace any kind of national legislature-flipping narrative or discuss the amount of outside money spent in their favor.
“It hasn’t changed how we campaign,” said Judy Schwiebert, a high school teacher running to flip a seat in the hotly-contested Legislative District 20. Schiwebert and fellow West Valley Democratic challenger Kathy Knecht have benefitted from more outside money than almost any other candidate of their party: $221,000 and $226,000, respectively.
Republicans are quick to paint substantial amounts of outside money as evidence that out-of-state Democrats are trying to “California” Arizona. Glendale Rep. Anthony Kern, for example, one of the GOP incumbents that Schwiebert is challenging, told the Capitol Times last week that he believed his voters are smart enough to see through what he called a “national movement” to elect Democrats in states like Arizona.
To be clear, outside spending is a bipartisan endeavor. Republican groups have spent $160,000 against Schwiebert and more than $250,000 to support her opponents, Kern and his seatmate, Rep. Shawnna Bolick. The legion of GOP and private-sector affiliated right-leaning organizations includes the Republican Legislative Victory Fund, the House and Senate GOP PAC, and Arizonans for Strong Leadership, Gov. Doug Ducey’s PAC.
Still, “the state has changed tremendously,” said Warde Nichols, a former Republican lawmaker who ran the Republican legislative victory PACs in the 2016 election.
“The last time I saw really big Democratic spending was in the 2008 elections,” he said. “I was in the Legislature at the time, and IEs came in my race and spent around $250,000 against me.”
At the time, he said, this was a significant amount, though some groups now drop that amount in a week, if not a day.
Nichols suggested that criticism of Democrats for the amount of spending in their races is not exactly made in good faith.
“In my opinion, that’s more of a political statement than it is an accurate statement,” he said. “It depends on how it’s spent and how it’s used in each individual race.”
Staff reporter Dillon Rosenblatt contributed to this story.