Takeaways from PA-18 special election on fundraising & strategy

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In November, voters from southwest Pennsylvania will vote for a congressional candidate for the second time this year. Instead of a Republican incumbent, which they’ve had for the past 15 years, the incumbent will be Democrat Conor Lamb. He recently beat Republican Rick Saccone in a special election for Pennsylvania’s 18th district—a district that went for Donald Trump by over 20 points in 2016. Although the district will only exist until January 1, 2019, when it will be redrawn pursuant to a Pennsylvania Supreme Court order, candidates and outside committees spent well over $15 million on the PA-18 election in an attempt to sway the national political narrative. As the midterm cycle heats up, that election offered an opportunity to better understand campaign fundraising and how candidates and outside groups hope to influence the American political landscape.

Three different types of entities spent money on PA-18: the candidates’ official campaigns, the party committees, and outside political action committees (PACs). Financial disclosures are not due until April or mid-2018, so we don’t know for sure how much each group spent, but recent filings and press reports give us a clue. As of February 21 of this year, Federal Election Commission (FEC) filings show that Conor Lamb raised $3.8 million for his campaign, compared to Rick Saccone’s $900,000. This number is already well above average for House campaigns, but it’s also been reported that outside groups spent more than three times this amount—close to $13 million.

The largest outside expenditures came from two groups, the Congressional Leadership Fund (CLF) and the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), at a reported $3.5 million each. The CLF is closely aligned with House Speaker Paul Ryan and is a super PAC, meaning that it can accept unlimited amounts from any individual or corporation, and can spend unlimited amounts advocating for or against any candidate. Super PACs, however, cannot give money directly to campaigns, nor are they allowed to “coordinate” with the campaigns they support. Contrary to popular belief, super PACs must disclose who their donors are, although they can accept money from political non-profit groups, called 501(c)(4)s, which do not have to. In this election, the CLF spent heavily on political advertising that attacked Conor Lamb and highlighted Rick Saccone’s conservative values.

The National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) is the national party committee for Republican candidates to the US House of Representatives (the Senate has a separate committee). Contributions to party committees must be disclosed, and are limited to $33,900 per year for individuals and $15,000 per year for other PACs. National party committees can give directly to candidates, but only up to $5,000 per primary election and $5,000 per general election. They can also support the candidate in other ways, which include buying ads or organizing get-out-the-vote campaigns. In this election, the NRCC aired ads that linked Conor Lamb to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and helped organize door-to-door canvassing.

Republican outside groups spent much more money on this race: $10.5 million to the Democrats’ $2 million. The largest Democratic outside group was the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), the Democratic counterpart to the NRCC. The DCCC reportedly spent about $1 million supporting Conor Lamb.

If you combine the amount of money spent by the candidates with their aligned outside groups, Rick Saccone outspent Conor Lamb $11.5 million to $6 million, and Lamb still won. Despite the major difference in spending, this historically Republican district flipped and went blue, stoking fear among Republicans that they may well lose control of Congress in the November midterms.

The Pennsylvania 18th special election was an expensive, isolated event. In November, however, all 435 seats in the House (including Conor Lamb’s) will be up for election, along with 35 Senate seats. Currently, national Republican Party committees have about $30 million more cash on hand than their Democratic counterparts. However, congressional Democratic candidates have raised over $175 million more than Republicans. It’s hard to tell how much has been raised by super PACs and non-profits, but in total we expect more than $3 billion will be spent on the 2018 election. As someone on our staff is fond of saying, it’s a good time to own a TV or radio station.

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