Dark Money Has Eclipsed Candidate Spending on Michigan Television

We're well on our way to $150 million in telelvision spending.



Michigan Campaign Finance Network


LANSING (Sept. 1, 2020) — Elections are becoming more costly. That’s been a truism for much of the last decade, but the extent that advertising spending has exploded in 2020 is truly unprecedented.

Political ad spending on Michigan television is on track to well exceed $150 million by the day of the election, according to data from Advertising Analytics analyzed by the Michigan Campaign Finance Network. And that’s just for federal races.

Since the presidential primary in March, about $76 million has been spent advertising in races for Congress and the presidency. Between now and the election that total is projected to nearly double, according to Advertising Analytics data that has recorded more than $69 million in reserved airtime.

PACs and nonprofits, many of which are dark money organizations, have been outspending candidates’ own campaigns in key races. In total they’ve spent about $43.1 million, while campaigns spent $31.9 million in the same time period. These organizations can’t directly advocate for the election of a candidate, but come as close as possible by lauding their records and attacking their opponents.

The difference in spending from 2016 is stark. So far, spending on Democratic nominee Joe Biden has outpaced President Donald Trump nearly three-to-one, $27 million to $9 million, respectively. By the end of October four years ago, the two presidential campaigns had spent a little less than $5 million on advertising in Michigan on traiditonal advertising, according to Ad Age

MCFN reported that there had been $3 million of presidential ad spending in Michigan the week before the 2016 election. Then Michigan hadn’t been widely considered a swing state. This year, more than $6 million has already been reserved for that time period.

That’ll bring the presidential ad spending total to $76 million if those reservations remain. To reiterate, that’s excluding all the spending in the runup to the presidential primary, an additional $17 million.

As ad purchases are made closer to election day, that total is likely to increase, although major purchases from outside groups are readily pulled if polls widen and organizations feel their investments are souring.

This spending is just through the traditional broadcast mediums of television, cable and radio. Online and through social media, there are no requirements to disclose political advertising and the voluntarily disclosed information from technology giants like Google is too vague to accurately measure spending.

(Report continues after the break.)



U.S. Senate Race Is Being Dominated By Outside Spending

Since March, the two campaigns have already spent close to $14 million. Outside groups have spent $20 million. It underscores the national significance of the race, and how much undisclosed money is being thrown into the battle.

While Republican challenger John James has a roughly $2 million edge on campaign ad spending, nine different outside groups have run ads supporting incumbent Democrat Gary Peters, making the overall spending for each candidate essentially neck-and-neck.

Senate Majority PAC, a super PAC supporting Democratic U.S. Senate candidates, has already spent $5.6 million on Peters ads. It is largely bankrolled by wealthy donors and a related dark money wing.

Five groups are backing James. The largest supporter to date, One Nation, is a dark money nonprofit previously bankrolled by billionaire Sheldon Adelson. It has spent more than $3.9 million on ads for James thus far, already significantly above what had been reported last week.

It’s become a $30 million race based on TV advertising alone, with much more to come.

Both campaigns have been accused of improperly soliciting funds from outside groups looking to influence the election. With the Peters campaign accused of collaborating with dark money group Vote Vets Action Fund, while last week James’ campaign was accused of soliciting help from super PACs by Democrats. 

Both if true are violations of campaign finance rules, and although formal complaints were filed, it’s unlikely there’ll be any resolution before the election. The six-seat body tasked with voting on punishments for violations of federal campaign finance law, the Federal Elections Commission, simply can’t. It hasn’t had enough White House-nominated commissioners for a consistent quorum since September 2019. The agency briefly regained a quorum in May after the appointment of a Republican commissioner, but lost that about a month later when a different Republican commissioner resigned. A seat on the commission reserved for Democrats has been left unfilled for more than three years.

Until those seats are filled, the accusations won’t move beyond that.


The Tighter The Contest, The More Dark Money Pours In

In the runup to the August primary, the 10th U.S. house district emerged as a surprisingly tight race. Term-limited state rep. Shane Hernandez (R-Port Huron) had been chosen as the preferred candidate by the conservative Club For Growth’s super PAC, which poured slightly more than $1 million into ads supporting him. They featured the current congressman, Paul Mitchell (R-Dryden Twp.).

Lisa McClain, his wealthy opponent, lent her own campaign about $1.5 million and spent about $700,000 on TV advertising to go on and defeat Hernandez in the August primary. Her ads primarily attacked Hernandez, falsely claiming he “wrote (Gov. Gretchen) Whitmer’s budget” and didn’t suppose the President enough.

In the 8th district, which first-term congresswoman Elissa Slotkin (D-Holly) won from Republican control in 2018, Slotkin’s campaign finished the last quarter reporting a war chest of more than $5 million. Now her campaign has reserved about $2.6 million in air time, with outside groups planning to spend at least $3.2 million on ads to support her rellection

And as the November election nears, some of the promotion from interest groups is almost formulaic. The American Chemistry Council is spending six figures to promote two Democrats, Peters and Haley Stevens (D-Rochester Hills) in the 11th congressional district.

They are running the exact same ad for each. The only difference is the name being praised at the beginning. (Here are the ads for Peters and Stevens).

At the state level, no Michigan House of Representatives candidate has spent more than $15,000 on broadcast ads thus far. That’s certain to change as the election nears.

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