By Sheena Dooley | Iowa Watchdog
DES MOINES — Outside spending for presidential and congressional campaigns have skyrocketed across the country this election cycle to more than $1 billion, including the nearly $32 million that has flowed into Iowa, according to figures from the Sunlight Foundation, a non-partisan group that tracks political spending.
Nearly $21 million of that money went to prop up campaigns for President Obama and his GOP rival Mitt Romney in Iowa. Another $11.6 million helped fund races for the state’s four seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, while an additional nearly $270,000 paid for television ads.
The influx of dollars from outside spending groups raises concerns for advocates of transparency in government, because it allows nonprofits to cloak who funds them and then use that money to support their interests. That makes it hard to track who is actually funneling money to the candidates.
“Iowa is very early with the caucuses,” said Bill Allison, editorial director at the Sunshine Foundation. “That makes it a magnet for outside spending. But still, that seems like an awful lot of money. You have both presidential candidates who feel they can win the state. That’s why you are seeing so much outside spending because it is a battleground state.”
A 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision lifted campaign restrictions on corporations, nonprofits and other groups, paving the way for the increased spending. The court also removed a ban that kept groups from using money to directly advocate for a candidate. They, instead, can endorse candidates.
Iowans have directly supported the groups, giving them more than $386,000 during this election cycle, according to the Sunlight Foundation. Their money goes to prominent political action committees that then use it to campaign for or against candidates who support their causes.
The Red, White and Blue Super Political Action Committee, created by Iowa native Nick Ryan, received a hefty chunk of that money. Ryan, who worked on campaigns for former Sen. Rick Santorum and Jim Nussle, donated $20,301 to the group. The largest donor, however, was the Iowa Keystone Political Action Committee, which gave $44,000.
Santorum, a Republican, created the statewide PAC in 2010 when he was gearing up to launch his presidential campaign. Its major funder is Foster Friess, a Wyoming-based investment banker, who has given it $2.1 million, or 25 percent of the group’s total funds.
“Since the Citizens United decision all of the spending is legal and above-board,” Allison said. “They don’t have to worry about the (Federal Communications Commission). As a result, we are seeing more spending than ever before.”
Iowans for Integrity in Leadership, a union-backed political action committee, topped Iowa’s donor list, giving the House Majority Super PAC $125,000. The House Majority PAC is a liberal group focused on gaining a Democratic majority in the U.S. House.
The group has spent $30.7 million this election cycle, of which $1.4 million was used to campaign against Iowa’s House Republicans, including Tom Latham, Steve King and Ben Lange. Latham, a Republican, is in a heated race with incumbent Leonard Boswell, a Democrat, to take over Iowa’s 3rd District, after the state lost a seat to redistricting.
King is in an equally close race with the state’s former First Lady Christie Vilsack, whose husband Tom Vilsack heads the U.S. Department of Agriculture. They are competing in the 4th District.
Other big spenders include Bruce Rastetter, CEO of Summit Group LLC, who gave the Restore Our Future PAC $25,000. The PAC supports Romney’s candidacy. John Pappajohn, investor at Equity Dynamics, donated $10,000 to USA Super PAC. Roxanne Conlin, a Des Moines attorney, and Frank Brownell, chair of Brownell Inc.’s board in Montezuma, also donated $10,000 to political action committees.
In the end, it’s hard to tell whether money equals votes, Allison said.
“These politicians and their surrogates spend all of this time raising all of this money to run all of these ads,” Allison said. “I can’t imagine them doing that if they didn’t have an effect.”
Contact Sheena Dooley at [email protected]