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AP: Political Money In State-Level Campaigns Exceeds $2B

Matt Rourke
The capitol building in Harrisburg, Pa.

The story of money in politics doesn't stop with spending on races for Congress.

Candidates for governor, legislature and other state offices this year have brought in $2.2 billion in campaign contributions — nearly matching the combined total of $2.4 billion for candidates for the U.S. House and Senate.

That makes this year among the most expensive ever in state-level politics, and the total will only grow in the final stretch before Tuesday's election.

At stake is control of 36 governors' offices and legislative chambers in most states.

Activists see state elections as a good investment because it doesn't take as much money to influence them as it does congressional races.

The upstart organization Flippable has raised about $1 million this year for 130 Democratic state legislative candidates in 10 states. Its chief executive, Catherine Vaughan, points out that legislative campaigns cost around $150,000 on average, compared with more than $1 million for a congressional race.

An Associated Press analysis of campaign finance data collected by the National Institute on Money in Politics, the Federal Election Commission and the IRS shows where the state-level money is going.

The Big Picture

The top states this year for reported contributions to candidates are, in order, Illinois, California, Texas, Florida, New York, Georgia and Pennsylvania. They also happen to be among the states with the largest populations — but not necessarily the most competitive state-level races.

Donors also have contributed more than $400 million to support or oppose ballot initiatives.

While Democrats are spending more in federal elections, it's about even in state-level elections. As of Thursday, reports processed by the National Institute on Money in Politics show that both parties had brought in just over $1 billion, with a slight edge for the GOP. Nonpartisan and third-party candidates had raised about $40 million.

But the money race is not even on a state-by-state basis. Republicans running for legislatures have raised $370 million to Democrats' $354 million. It's no surprise that Wyoming Republicans have raised six times as much as Democrats and that Massachusetts Democrats have nearly as big an advantage.

But there's also lopsided funding in some more competitive states. Republican legislative candidates have brought in about twice as much as Democrats in Florida. In Colorado, Democrats have a 2-to-1 fundraising advantage.

The Most Expensive Races

Illinois has the second most expensive race for governor on record at $210 million so far. This year's second costliest governor's race is in Florida.

Both already are among the 10 costliest races for governor on record.

Polls have consistently shown a tight race in Florida between U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis, a loyalist to President Donald Trump, and Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum.

In Illinois, nearly 90 percent of contributions have come from just three wealthy investors. Democratic challenger J.B. Pritzker, who is leading in polls, has used more than $106 million of his own money in the race.

Republican incumbent Bruce Rauner has spent $57 million. Citadel founder Ken Griffin has kicked in more than $22 million to support Rauner.

The most expensive state legislative race is for a state Senate seat in north Texas that has cost $10.8 million so far. Nearly half the total was from Phillip Huffines, who self-financed his losing Republican primary campaign.

The most expensive legislative race with a competitive general election is the 12th Senate District in central California. Democrat Anna Caballero and Republican Rob Poythress each have raised about $2 million.

Biggest Spenders

The list of the largest contributors across all state-level elections is dominated by self-funded candidates. Nine candidates, all running for governor, have spent at least $10 million on themselves this year. In addition to the two in Illinois, only one other — Jared Polis, a Colorado Democrat — won a primary.

The list of big organizational contributors is dominated by labor groups spreading money to a variety of candidates — mostly but not exclusively Democrats. Unions representing laborers, educators, service workers and plumbers, including their regional affiliates, have contributed at least $7 million each.

Realtor associations also have contributed more than $11 million, the majority of it to Republicans.

Independent Money

Most states limit the amount a contributor can give to each candidate. But political groups, companies, charities and individuals have no restrictions on how much they can spend on their own.

In some cases, they can do this spending without disclosing the identities of their donors; in some states, they don't even have to report the spending.

The one catch: They're generally not allowed to coordinate with the candidates' official campaigns.

Among those that do report spending are national party-affiliated organizations, which have arms that do work with campaigns. Republican groups trying to elect their partisans to governor's offices, legislatures and other positions such as state attorney general have an edge over Democrats. Corporations are major contributors to the groups on both sides.

Filings by the Republican Governors Association this month show it has raised $156 million from the start of 2017 through September. The Democratic Governors Association brought in $108 million through Oct. 17. Both use much of their money to fund ads attacking their opponents.

Groups that are key to the parties' attempts to win state legislative seats also are spending big this cycle.

The Republican State Leadership Committee had raised $33 million through September and expects to spend up to $50 million.

Its counterpart, the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, said it has brought in $35 million through October, a record amount for the group. Its efforts are being bolstered this year by other organizations with similar goals.

The National Players

A handful of wealthy individuals fund organizations that spend on politics across the country.

The industrialist brothers Charles and David Koch and other conservatives are major players through a group of organizations that include Americans for Prosperity. It's impossible to tell from campaign finance filings how much they're spending this year. An Americans for Prosperity spokeswoman said the network plans to put a total of $400 million into state and federal political efforts in 2017 and 2018 but declined to break down how much would go to state races.

Tom Steyer, a San Francisco liberal who has called for impeaching Trump, has announced contributions totaling at least $7 million to support Florida's Gillum.

That includes more than $2 million in direct contributions to a political action committee that supports Gillum, along with $800,000 from the Steyer group NextGen Climate America and direct mail pieces being sent by another Steyer group, Need to Impeach.