the kicker

Super PACs at the State Level: A Different Story

April 16, 2012

Spending by super PACs and other independent groups in 2012 federal races is readily available at websites like and the Sunlight Foundation’s “Follow the Unlimited Money” page. (For more on how to track that spending, see here.)

But that’s not necessarily the case for super PAC spending in state races—even though the amount of cash those groups lay out may turn out to be sizable. After all, donors to today’s super PACs have in the past played a major role in state-level races. According to a report by the National Institute on Money in State Politics, “an examination of individuals and companies that gave at least $25,000 to super PACs in 2011 shows that these same contributors gave a whopping $36.8 million to state campaigns during the 2008-2010 elections.”

But it may be months before reporters have access to much data on that spending, according to the institute’s Edwin Bender. That’s because super PACs have largely focused on federal races so far—but also because states’ reporting deadlines are generally much later than federal ones.

“Late, fragmented and non-existent reporting are all problems at the state level,” he added. “If super PACs are going to play at the state level, we’re not going to find out until later, and it will probably happen in a very different way than in congressional or presidential races.”

When that spending does start, what might it look like? The sheer number of candidates in down-ballot races—more than 16,000 in legislative and gubernatorial battles in some years—has often precluded outside groups from getting involved, Bender said. But when they do get in, the spending is highly prioritized.

“We know already that the Chamber of Commerce is going to focus on state races for attorney general, believing that whoever wins will be key to state challenges to things like environmental regulation or the implementation of health-care reforms. That’s just a few dozen races,” he explained.

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“They also have targeted gubernatorial campaigns, again assuming the top of the ticket will be a good return on investment,” he added. “And judicial races will be targeted because the interests behind super PACs believe they can get judges friendly to their causes elected, another good return on investment.”

But Bender said it’s unlikely we’ll see outside groups spending on slates of state legislative candidates. “If a super PAC were to weigh into state-level elections at the level they have in federal races, I think the threat of a backlash is very real.”

Mary Winter has worked for seven newspapers, most recently the Denver Post, and was assistant managing editor at She spent the bulk of her career at the Rocky Mountain News, first in features and later managing the legislative and state government teams. In 2008, she oversaw delegate coverage at the Democratic National Convention for the paper. She wrote a weekly column for the News for 10 years.