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Outside money played outsized role in McCaskill-Hawley Senate race

Sen. Claire McCaskill and Attorney General Josh Hawley campaign in the St. Louis region on Oct. 29, 2018.
Carolina Hidalgo I St. Louis Public Radio

When U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill claimed during her campaign that she was the top target of conservative groups, she turned out to be right.

McCaskill, a Democrat, was hit with $39.5 million in attack ads by outside groups – more than any other Senate candidate in the country in the Nov. 6 election.

Republican Josh Hawley, the Republican who defeated McCaskill, was the target of $31.6 million in outside spending. Almost $30 million of it was used in attack ads against him.

The nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, which monitors campaign spending, compiled the outside group contribution information.

Center spokesman Brendan Quinn said only one other state – Florida – saw more outside money than Missouri.

“I think this race was seen as one of the Republicans’ biggest pickups this year, so I’m not surprised Republicans focused a lot of money on it,” Quinn said. “But the sheer amount of money spent across the board is kind of mind-boggling.”

Missouri outside spending set record

McCaskill and her allies agree that the outside attacks played a sizable role in her re-election loss, by financing a barrage of negative ads that accused her of being too liberal, too rich and in Washington too long.

Another $5.5 million was spent by supportive outside groups on positive spots and fliers aimed at bolstering her image.

The overall Missouri tally of almost $77 million in outside money is almost twice the amount – $43 million – that the Federal Election Commission has calculated was spent in the state’s 2016 U.S. Senate contest between Republican incumbent Roy Blunt and Democrat Jason Kander.

Nationally, conservative outside groups succeeded in knocking off their top three Senate targets: McCaskill, Florida Democrat Bill Nelson and Indiana Democrat Joe Donnelly, who attracted the third-largest bloc of attack spending.

During their contest, McCaskill and Hawley frequently jabbed each other for the deluge of outside money flowing into the state to help or hurt them.

There’s no doubt that the outside money helped bridge the financial gap for Hawley’s campaign, which raised just over $10.1 million – less than a third of McCaskill’s own money-raising tally of almost $35 million, which set a state record.

Those numbers come from the candidates’ October campaign filings. Final campaign-finance figures for both candidates are to be filed by Thursday.

Florida top outside-money target

Quinn with the Center for Responsive Politics ties the flood of outside money to recent Supreme Court decisions in 2010 and 2014 that, in effect, lifted any restrictions on how much donors can give certain campaign groups known as SuperPACs.

“There’s billions of dollars from one or two individual donors going into a SuperPAC,’’ he said.

Quinn cites Florida as a textbook case.

Florida attracted the most money from outside groups: $89.9 million.

That outside spending was almost evenly split between Democratic incumbent Bill Nelson, who narrowly lost, and Republican victor Rick Scott, who has been Florida’s governor.

Nelson attracted more outside money than any U.S. Senate candidate in the country – $49.5 million.

But about $18 million of that amount paid for positive spots praising Nelson, while $31.5 million was spent on attack ads. That attack tally is significantly less than the outside money spent against McCaskill.

Quinn noted that Scott, the victor and personally wealthy, set up his own SuperPAC before he launched his Senate campaign. Scott raised money for the group, then separated from it so he did not violate federal laws against coordination. That SuperPAC then spent its money in support of Scott.

Quinn predicts candidates in the future may follow Scott’s lead.

‘Blurred’ lines between candidates, outside groups

Outside spending is not money donated to a candidate. Rather, the money is used to conduct independent ad campaigns for or against a candidate. Any coordination violates federal law.

But Quinn cites Scott’s case as an example of how candidates can carefully skirt the coordination ban.

“On paper, it looks like this spending is not coordinated at all, but sometimes we see these lines being blurred – and that’s happening more and more,” he said.

The Center for Responsive Politics’ tally only concerns outside groups, notably SuperPACS, that report their donors. The center has not calculated how much money from undisclosed donors – known as “dark money’’ – was spent in Missouri.

But Quinn notes that some of those dark-money groups gave to the SuperPACS, which in turn report that money. But the original donor may remain unknown.

Senate leaders provided bulk of outside money

Although most of the outside money spent in Missouri came from conservative groups, the group spending the largest chunk of outside money was Democratic.

The Senate Majority PAC spent $21.1 million in Missouri, most of it for ads attacking Hawley. The Senate Majority PAC is a SuperPAC aligned with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, a Democrat from New York.

The conservative Senate Leadership Fund, controlled by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, spent almost as much: $20.7 million. Much of that money was spent against McCaskill.

The third-largest chunk of outside money came from the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which spent $5.2 million to help Hawley and defeat McCaskill.

Coming in fourth was Priorities USA Action, a Democratic leaning group that spent $4.5 million on McCaskill’s behalf.

Follow Jo Mannies on Twitter:@jmannies

Jo Mannies is a freelance journalist and former political reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.