Led by deep-pocketed environmentalist and business interests, a record amount of independent spending by Democratic and Republican allies is pouring into Washington’s legislative races.
As of Monday, independent political committees had spent more than $7.7 million on 2014 legislative contests — up from $5.9 million in 2012, $3.9 million in 2008, and $2.1 million in 2008, according to state Public Disclosure Commission filings.
That’s in addition to the more than $25 million raised directly by legislative candidates this year, an amount on pace to beat the 2012 record of $26 million once all the reports are in.
The independent expenditures (IEs) have flowed through groups with names like People for Jobs and Eastside Integrity PAC, which are legally independent of candidates they’re supporting, and are unfettered by contribution limits. They frequently play the heavy in legislative races, funding nasty mailers and TV ads.
So who’s benefiting from the big money? Overall, Democrats have a big edge. Their allies have plopped $4.9 million into legislative independent expenditures, compared with $2.8 million for Republicans.*
But when it comes to the hottest contested races for control of the state Senate, Republicans and their allies are holding their own.
In all, the Democratic allied groups have dropped $2.8 million on state Senate candidates, while GOP allies have spent $2.5 million. Republican allies have funded the three most expensive “independent opposition” campaigns, targeting Democrats Tami Green, Seth Fleetwood, and Matt Isenhower in their key challenges to Republican state senate incumbents.
The race that has pulled in the most spending all around is Isenhower’s challenge to state Sen. Andy Hill, R-Redmond, in the Eastside’s 45th Legislative District.
The Hill-Isenhower fight already is the most expensive legislative race in state history — on pace to surpass $3 million spent. Hill himself has raised nearly $960,000 — far more than any other state Senate candidate this year. Isenhower has raised about $480,000. Hill allies have added another $660,000 in independent expenditures, compared with $800,000 for groups backing Isenhower.
The donor who’s received the most attention this year is California billionaire and climate-change activist Tom Steyer, who has sent $1.25 million through Washington Conservation Voters (WCV) and other groups, mostly to aid Democrats in their efforts to gain control of the state Senate. Steyer is an ally of Gov. Jay Inslee, who wants to pass legislation in 2015 to cut carbon pollution and address the threat of climate change.
Wealthy Washington state environmentalists, including Peter Goldman and Maryanne Tagney-Jones also have contributed to the WCV effort. Other traditional Democratic donors behind the independent expenditure surge include labor unions and trial attorneys.
Business groups have responded in kind, sending cash to help Republicans maintain or expand their slim Senate majority. The state Realtors association has been among the biggest donors, giving more than $200,000 to Enterprise Washington’s People For Jobs PAC. The national Republican State Leadership Committee — whose top funders include Koch Industries and the parent company of cigarette maker R.J. Reynolds — has sent $400,000 to aid Republicans through the Senate GOP’s Leadership Council PAC. Oil companies, restaurant owners and insurance associations also have chipped in.
Some Democrats say the focus on Steyer has distracted from what the GOP donors want in return for protecting the Senate majority.
“The focus should be on both sides. Why are the oil and coal companies donating to Republicans?” said Alex Bond, political director for the Washington Senate Democratic Campaign. He pointed to tax breaks for oil companies and others that Republicans have stopped Democrats from closing.
But Republicans say Steyer, as the Democrats’ “sugar daddy,” has had an outsized influence on the legislative contests. “Steyer has driven the conversation. Businesses are responding to that,” said Brent Ludeman, executive director of the Senate Republican Campaign Committee.
*Note: for purposes of this analysis, we’ve counted the money supporting state Sen. Tim Sheldon in the Republican column. Sheldon continues to identify as a Democrat, but has effectively switched sides to caucus with Republicans in the state Senate’s “Majority Coalition.”