This Is A $100 Million Senate Election

Outside groups are driving record spending in the run-up to the November election.



Michigan Campaign Finance Network


LANSING (Oct. 1, 2020) — A $9 million spending announcement from a super PAC weeks from the election can still grab headlines, as the press release from the Senate Leadership Fund did today.

For this race, though, it’s a little more than a drop in the bucket.

The Michigan Campaign Finance Network (MCFN) projects the total cost of the U.S. Senate race in Michigan to exceed $100 million this election cycle, based on a compilation of Federal Election Commission filings, ad tracking data from Advertising Analytics and Facebook disclosures.

It’s a race in a battleground state with national significance. Ensuring incumbent Gary Peters (D-Bloomfield Hills) retains the seat is key to Democratic hopes of a U.S. Senate majority. With polls relatively close, Republicans see electing challenger John James as a potential backstop for control of the chamber, should seats flip elsewhere.

The race is on track to surpass the $93.4 million spent on the 2018 race for Michigan Governor to become the most expensive in Michigan’s history. That year the race for Michigan’s other U.S. Senate seat was thrifty by comparison, with a total cost of just $40 million.

To date, 62 ads for the race have run more than 85,000 times on broadcast TV, cable and radio according to Advertising Analytics data. 

The Peters and James campaigns alone intend to spend more than $35 million on broadcast advertising. It’s still less than half of the at least $85 million that’s slated to be spent in total over the airwaves, largely from outside and dark money groups. About $21 million of that total is reserved for between now and Election Day, the purchase from the Senate Leadership Fund included. Most of that future spending has been reserved by the campaigns, and unless those reservations are pulled that total should hold.

MCFN has identified more than 40 outside groups that have collectively spent at least $50 million thus far in the race, according to a combination of FEC and Advertising Analytics spending data that encompasses spending beyond advertising. The ad buy announced today splits the outside financial support nearly evenly between the two candidates, but that can readily change in the coming weeks.

Most of the outside money has been spent on advertising, but for the groups that do report their spending, the ways they can act like a shadow campaign become apparent.

In September there was about $284,000 reported as canvassing expenses in this race by three groups that can’t legally coordinate with either campaign. American for Prosperity and Women Speak Out supported James, while New American Jobs Fund supported Peters, though the latter's expense was reported as consulting. Six different groups reported another $307,000 for phone banking and similar activities in the last two months.

There are significant barriers to measuring the true cost of a race with this much money in it. Delayed filing deadlines and overlapping reporting makes it challenging to produce a specific estimate of the race’s total cost  before the election. Vague spending explanations reported to the FEC add to the uncertainty and some dark money organizations won't report their spending until nearly a year after the election. Spending totals for these organizations on many forms of voter outreach likely will remain unknown. While the campaigns get to remain positive on air, it's these outside spending groups that are increasingly utilized for attack ads. Nearly $8 million has been spent attacking Peters and $2.5 million attacking James, all by outside groups.

Total spending from the candidates' campaigns has only been disclosed through mid-July. Still, the two had spent nearly $14 million outside of advertising, according to FEC filings. On Thursday Peters announced he raised nearly $14 million in the last quarter, giving him wide flexibility in this crucial period.

There are clear beneficiaries from this mountain of cash. Political consultants certainly do. Each campaign had spent more than $1 million on consulting through the last filing period. Filings due later this month will provide a more up-to-date picture of their spending.

Despite this staggering lelvel of spending, it's dwarfed by the spending in the presidential election. Broadcast advertising for that race so far this cycle is near $80 million in Michigan and is on track easily exceed $100 million by the time the election arrives.

Press Release Press U.s. Senate Gary Peters John James 2020 Election Advertising Outside Money Dark Money