How Much Are Outside Groups Spending on the New Hampshire Senate Race? It’s Complicated.

In a debate against primary challenger Jim Rubens on Thursday, Sen. Kelly Ayotte had a chance to respond about the many negative attack ads that dominate the airwaves in this election against her and Gov. Maggie Hassan.

“We’ve seen all the false, negative ads on TV falsely attacking me…these Washington Democrats want to dictate this election but I know this election is about the people of New Hampshire, and…they’ll decide,” Ayotte said.

After the debate, her campaign team blasted an email to potential voters titled “Hassan’s Special Interest Backers Try to Buy NH’s Senate Seat.”

Ayotte claims that Hassan’s special interest allies have spent nearly $20 million this year with attack ads against the incumbent Republican senator.

Hassan doesn’t face a primary challenger, but she sent out a press release a few days earlier saying outside groups backing Ayotte have spent over $24 million to support her campaign.

Earlier in the campaign, Ayotte and Hassan discussed ways to avoid big spending by outside groups.

Ayotte proposed a “People’s Pledge” similar to one adopted in Massachusetts in the 2012 race between Sen. Scott Brown and Sen. Elizabeth Warren – requiring that a candidate who benefits from a third party ad donate 50 percent of the ad’s total cost to a charity of the other candidate’s choice.

Hassan countered Ayotte, declining to sign the pledge and suggesting limiting each candidate’s spending to $15 million. “This move is politician speak for ‘I do not want to sign the People’s Pledge,’” Ayotte said. The candidates could not come to an agreement and the outside group money flooded into the state.

The New Hampshire Senate seat could decide who controls the Senate, so outside spending on the race is expected to be big. According to the campaigns then, outside spending would be at $44 million.

Everyone knows to take the figures the campaigns send out lightly, since they are often a bit exaggerated. But are the campaign numbers close to the actual amount?

The figures change by each media outlet that reports on the race, which doesn’t help voters understand who is funding attack ads and sending out mailers.

The Washington Post reported that outside groups spent $6.8 million in the New Hampshire Senate race so far.

Bloomberg says $18 million of ads have run in the Granite State.

WMUR released a report last week stating that more than $40 million had been spent on independent expenditures by super PACs and issues groups supporting and attacking each candidate. $24.2 million was spent by Republican groups on behalf of Ayotte, mostly attacking Hassan and and $18.4 million was spent by pro-Democratic groups on behalf of Hassan, mostly attacking Ayotte.

Even Citizens for Responsive Politics, the nonpartisan group that tracks campaign finances and outside spending in races across the United States, has different figures.

They claim $25.5 million has been spent by outside groups in this race, mostly to Hassan’s benefit — $3 million supporting Ayotte, $2.4 million supporting Hassan, $14.7 million attacking Ayotte and $5.2 million attacking Hassan.

That would be different narrative people aren’t necessarily hearing. Usually, Democrats says Republicans always receive more special interest money. But according to the CRP, that might not be the case in this race.

So which one is right?

CRP’s figures use official filings to the Federal Election Commission, which requires campaigns and PACs to disclose who is donating and what the money is going to. The FEC only requires disclosure after that money is spent.

For example, the Granite State Solutions super PAC announced last week that it would be launching a $15.8 million ad campaign in September and October. WMUR says that would bring the total outside spending amount to more than $55 million.

CRP doesn’t include an amount like that since it hasn’t been disclosed in any of their FEC filings yet. Once they purchase the airtime and disclose it, then it will be added to their figures.

CRP also doesn’t account for politically-active nonprofits who spend money on “issue campaigns” often intended to influence vote choice. These groups — primarily 501(c)(4) social welfare organizations and 501(c)(6) trade associations – do not have disclose their spending in elections and have become more prominent after the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court case where campaign finance restrictions were loosened.

Between 2000 and 2006, non-disclosing groups averaged less than 18,000 ad spots per cycle. However, after the Supreme Court decision, the average ad count over the next four elections jumped to more than 219,000 per cycle, according to an August study co-authored by the Wesleyan Media Project and the CRP.

For nonprofits, they have a reporting window where they can run ads without reporting to the FEC. By running “issue ads” that are often just thinly veiled political ads – stopping short of asking viewers to vote for or against a particular candidate – these groups can avoid reporting the spending to the FEC as long as the ads are run more than 30 days before a primary or 60 days before a general election.

These groups can then explain their political activity to the Internal Revenue Services as issue advocacy when they file their annual returns.

Since CRP relies on FEC filings, their figures don’t include nonprofits that run ads before that reporting window.

The pro-Republican issues group One Nation, which is linked to the American Crossroads super PAC, has spent $8.7 million in New Hampshire for the Senate race.

Its most controversial ad was aired in June, accusing Hassan of mismanaging the state’s response to the opioid crisis. Ayotte said the issue shouldn’t be politicized and asked One Nation to pull the ad. They didn’t do it.

Since One Nation is a nonprofit group and their ads ran more than 30 days before the primary, they didn’t have to disclose that to the FEC, so CRP wouldn’t have that reported.

If WMUR’s calculations are correct for this cycle, total spending by outside groups, not including issue ads, is expected to surpass the 2014 Shaheen-Brown race, which was $28.3 million.

As super PACs and dark money continue to dominate the airwaves, candidates and their campaigns have to navigate the message they want voters to see. Since super PACs and nonprofits can’t coordinate with the campaigns, the candidates don’t know what ads could be running about them. With the primary coming up on September 13 and the general election in November, outside spending will continue to come into the Granite State and it will be another talking point for the candidates.

Author: Kyle Plantz

Kyle Plantz is a reporter with NH Journal.

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