A year out, political groups prepare for what could be the most expensive midterms ever

Super PACs, party funds and nonprofits can disrupt competitive House and Senate races

Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski faces a primary challenger backed by former President Donald Trump, but she has the support of the Senate Leadership Fund.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski faces a primary challenger backed by former President Donald Trump, but she has the support of the Senate Leadership Fund. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted November 1, 2021 at 5:30am

Next year’s midterm elections, which will determine control of the House and Senate for the second half of President Joe Biden’s first term, are on pace to shatter records, thanks largely to big-money outside groups.

Super PACs — more than a decade old, with an infrastructure and stream of donors to rival the major political parties — and other outside organizations have already begun to invest heavily to influence the outcome of the 2022 elections. 

“Outside groups are enormously important vehicles, especially in competitive races,” said Sheila Krumholz, executive director of OpenSecrets, which tracks political spending. “They can afford to drop huge sums of money.”  

Krumholz’s group has tracked nearly $40 million toward the midterms, which includes investments by such groups as Club for Growth Action, which is already spending to influence Republican primaries. That’s on the heels of the 2020 campaigns, when outside groups spent a record-breaking nearly $3 billion, including on the presidential races, according to OpenSecrets.

They pay higher rates for advertising than candidates do and are prohibited from directly coordinating with a candidate, but they don’t face any such restrictions in operating jointly with other outside groups — and many do.

“There’s no prohibition on outside groups consulting with one another on their political plans and advertising strategy. You could have one, five, 10 super PACs, split up the country, split up the races, and they can decide amongst themselves who’s going to take the lead, what types of political messaging they’ll do,” said Michael Toner, a former chairman of the Federal Election Commission, who runs the political law practice at the Wiley firm. “They’re trying to maximize the effectiveness of their aggregate spend.”

The independent expenditure operations of the House and Senate campaign arms also have restrictions on coordinating with their candidates and take on the role as outside groups in such circumstances, forking over major ad buys on behalf of their candidates or in opposition to candidates on the other side.

Some outside groups specialize in primary contests, while others mostly or entirely stay out of intraparty campaigns.

All the biggest players seem to have a niche, even as most tend to specialize in attack ads to allow candidates to use what are often more limited resources on positive ads, including about their personal biographies, as a way of introducing themselves to voters. 

As the congressional battlefields take shape over the coming year, an infusion of millions of dollars into a race can upend the previous dynamics. Outside organizations will rely on polling and other cues for where to put their money. 

“Outside groups also inject some uncertainty into a race,” said Zach Hunter, a managing director at Narrative Strategies who is a veteran of several political groups, including House GOP super PAC Conservative Leadership Fund and the National Republican Congressional Committee.

“If it’s just candidate versus candidate, you could track each candidate’s fundraising,” Hunter added. “Outside groups often make their decisions relatively late, especially outside the top tier of races.”

Without a presidential contest this cycle, federal campaign donors will have only Senate and House races clamoring for their cash. And already many of the super PACs, nonprofits and campaign arms are hauling in more money than at this stage in previous cycles.

“This is going to be a very intense midterm,” Toner said. “It’s going to be a wild ride. I have no doubt we’ll see record-breaking fundraising.”

Here’s a look at some of the biggest, most influential outside groups for the 2022 midterm elections:

Super money

Unlike federal candidates, who face limits on how much they can take from individual donors and traditional PACs, super PACs can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money, and they’ve become dominant vehicles for both parties. Individual donations to a candidate are capped at $2,900 per election, for a total of $5,800 this cycle.

Though single-candidate and state-specific super PACs crop up and can swiftly drop millions of dollars on a race, four main super PACs operate nationwide and tend to act with the blessing of their party leadership. In the Senate, Democrats have Senate Majority PAC, which infused about $250 million last cycle, while its GOP competitor, Senate Leadership Fund, disclosed spending nearly $300 million. 

SMP has previously spent money to boost specific primary contenders but has not backed any Democratic contenders yet. SLF is backing Alaska GOP Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who voted to convict former President Donald Trump of inciting an insurrection at his impeachment trial and faces a Trump-endorsed Republican challenger.  

Both groups also have nonprofit arms, which run issue advocacy ads but don’t publicly disclose their donors. SMP’s affiliate is known as Majority Forward, while SLF’s affiliate is One Nation.

On the House side, the Congressional Leadership Fund, the biggest House GOP group, and House Democrats’ House Majority PAC each reported expenditures of about $140 million in 2020 races. These super PACs, which disclose their donors, also have nonprofit affiliates. Both CLF affiliate American Action Network and its Democratic counterpart, House Majority Forward, have been running ads in districts that are likely to be competitive in 2022.  

HMP doesn’t, as a rule, get involved in primaries. CLF has indicated, as in cycles past, that it will play in certain primaries, either to boost candidates where it matters for the general election or to protect key incumbents, including potentially some of the members who voted for Trump’s impeachment.

“As we plan, a significant portion of our spending will not just be about persuasion but also turnout,” said Dan Conston, who runs CLF.  

Arms race

The House and Senate campaign arms — Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, NRCC, Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and National Republican Senatorial Committee — are allowed to coordinate with their candidates in some cases but not when it comes to their independent expenditures. Then they fill the role of outside groups, often attacking an opponent.

All four have an incumbent-protection mission but not all will help out in primaries. They are subject to contribution limits, though they are much higher than the caps for candidates, allowing an individual to give nearly $110,000 per year to each campaign arm.

Minnesota Rep. Tom Emmer, who chairs the NRCC this cycle, made clear that his organization would stay out of any primaries and would focus on boosting Republicans in the general election.  

“I’ve made it very clear, we don’t play in primaries,” Emmer told reporters this fall. “The leader, the whip, everybody else, conference chair, individual members, they’re all free to do whatever they think best, but the committee will not play in primaries.”

The DSCC, this cycle under the chairmanship of Michigan Sen. Gary Peters, has not yet endorsed any nonincumbent Democrats and has instead been focused on the general election, including with a $30 million investment in organizing in battleground states. The group has spent on behalf of Democratic candidates in primaries in the past. It hasn’t done so yet this cycle but hasn’t ruled out the idea.

That’s similar to the NRSC, whose chairman this cycle, Florida Sen. Rick Scott, has mostly steered clear of intraparty races, although Scott has indicated he may be willing to support New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu should he enter the GOP primary to take on Democratic Sen. Maggie Hassan, who is viewed as potentially vulnerable. For now, though, the NRSC has mostly been focused on ads and messaging aimed at bruising up Democratic incumbents such as Hassan.  

For its part, the DCCC may spend on behalf of an incumbent Democrat in a primary, but likely only if it’s in a battleground district, not a safe Democratic seat.

The disrupters  

Some groups take particular pride in playing in primaries, seeing it as a way to shape the policy positions within their own parties.

The Club for Growth vets GOP candidates on their voting records and policy stances and even conducts polling when determining its endorsements. So far this cycle, it has spent money in support of North Carolina Rep. Ted Budd’s campaign for the nomination for his state’s open Senate seat. The club has already spent more than $3 million supporting Budd’s campaign.

In Ohio, the group is backing Max Miller, who is seeking to succeed Rep. Anthony Gonzalez, one of 10 House Republicans to vote for Trump’s impeachment. Gonzalez is not running for reelection. The club is also backing Ohio Senate contender Josh Mandel, hitting the airwaves to blast JD Vance, his rival for the GOP nomination, for past comments Vance made criticizing Trump.

Democrats have their own disrupters, including Justice Democrats, a group that backs more progressive challengers to incumbents. The group launched a new independent expenditure arm in the 2020 cycle and spent more than $2 million to boost successful candidates such as Missouri’s Cori Bush, who ousted incumbent William Lacy Clay in the Democratic primary, and New York’s Jamaal Bowman, who was a primary winner over Democratic incumbent Eliot L. Engel.

Candidates endorsed by Justice Democrats this cycle include Texas’ Jessica Cisneros, who is again trying to oust Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar.   

Groups seeking to put more women in office — including Democratic group EMILY’s List, its affiliated super PAC Women Vote! and the GOP group Winning for Women — will focus on primaries and general election races.

EMILY’s List, which supports female Democrats who back abortion rights, has endorsed multiple Senate candidates, including Cheri Beasley, who is running for the open Senate seat in North Carolina. The group has also endorsed the Senate campaigns of Wisconsin state Treasurer Sarah Godlewski, Florida Rep. Val B. Demings, who is challenging GOP incumbent Marco Rubio, and Val Arkoosh, a county commissioner in suburban Philadelphia running for the open seat in Pennsylvania.