Pennsylvania Senate Race Draws Highest Outside Money From The Left

Katie McGinty greets supporters with high-fives as she arrives at her polling station to cast her vote Tuesday, April 26, 201
Katie McGinty greets supporters with high-fives as she arrives at her polling station to cast her vote Tuesday, April 26, 2016 in Wayne, Pa. Former Congressman Joe Sestak looks to hold off McGinty, the party-endorsed candidate, and win the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate, setting up a rematch with the Republican incumbent Pat Toomey. (AP Photo/Jacqueline Larma)

by Ashley Balcerzak

Democrat Katie McGinty (pictured) has benefited from heavy outside spending by groups on the left in her race against incumbent Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.). (AP Photo/Jacqueline Larma)

Outside spending groups have poured more than $20.4 million so far into Pennsylvania's Senate race between Republican incumbent Pat Toomey and Democrat Katie McGinty, putting it close behind Ohio's Senate race, at $21.8 million, for the most outside spending in a congressional contest.

But while Ohio's race is dominated by conservative groups backed by the Koch brothers, such as the political nonprofit Americans for Prosperity and the super PAC Freedom Partners Action Fund, the Keystone State has been bombarded by money from the left, including some that was spent in the primary. The Pennsylvania faceoff so far has seen the most outside money benefiting Dems: $11.6 million.

The race between Toomey, a first-term senator elected in the 2010 Tea Party wave, and McGinty, the former chief of staff for the state's Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, looks to be a toss-up according to the Cook Political Report. Other polls show Toomey slightly ahead.

Measured by campaign coffers alone, Toomey has raked in more than five times McGinty's haul, $20 million to her $3.8 million.

But outside money is evening out the playing field: Liberal groups backing McGinty or attacking Toomey have spent $10.2 million, about one-and-a-half times the $7.1 million paid out singing Toomey's praises or savaging McGinty.

"McGinty is well-connected from her days working with Bill Clinton and Al Gore as environmental adviser, and those connections matter," said G. Terry Madonna, pollster and director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. "A lot of Democrats think that if they don't win this seat, they can't win the Senate."

Donors are also drawn to what FiveThirtyEight has referred to as the "tipping point state" this year for the presidential race: Although Pennsylvania has voted for a Democrat in the White House every year since 1992, the rural areas outside of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh are becoming a more saturated shade of red, giving both sides hope they can win the White House and Senate this year, Madonna said.

Not all the money expended in the state by outside groups has gone to the Toomey v. McGinty prizefight, though. A chunk of it -- about $6.7 million -- was poured into a fierce Democratic primary last April, where McGinty, the Democratic establishment favorite, defeated former Rep. Joe Sestak and two other candidates with 42.5 percent of the vote. About a third of the outside spending directed at this Senate race, or close to $7 million, occurred before the April 26 primary. 

For instance, the single-candidate super PAC Accountable Leadership spent $1.3 million supporting Sestak. Its donors included New Jersey's The Connell Company, which is involved in real estate and other markets; Josh Bekenstein, the co-chairman of Bain Capital; and Joseph Field, the founder and chairman of broadcasting company Entercom.

Toomey ran unopposed in the Republican primary.

Overall, most of the outside money comes from a small number of players: Six groups together have spent 83 percent of it, or about $17 million.

Senate Majority PAC has been the largest player on the left, spending about $3.5 million so far benefiting McGinty since the primary. The super PAC, which has ties to establishment Democratic groups, has reported shelling out about $17.3 million so far this cycle, about three-fourths of which it has used to attack GOP candidates like Sens. Rob Portman (Ohio) and Kelly Ayotte (N.H.) and Rep. Joe Heck, who's running in Nevada to replace retiring Sen. Harry Reid, the Democratic leader. The super PAC has been a heavy hitter this season, spending the seventh most out of all outside groups.

Senate Majority PAC's largest donor is philanthropist Fred Eychaner, chairman of Newsweb Corporation; he has given the group $3 million so far this cycle. The group also has received money from labor unions such as the American Federation of Teachers, Working for Working Americans and the UAW Education Fund. So far, though, it has spent only a fraction of the nearly $46.7 million it poured into 2014 elections.

Close behind is Women Vote!, the super PAC branch of EMILY's List that supports pro-abortion rights candidates. The liberal super PAC spent $2.8 million attacking first Sestak and then Toomey, and promoting McGinty.

That's not quite as much as the $2.9 million the group spent trying, unsuccessfully, to help Rep. Donna Edwards of Maryland prevail in her Senate primary against fellow Democratic Rep. Chris Van Hollen. It has also spent more than $438,000 supporting Hillary Clinton for president. Among the group's top donors is hedge fund manager Donald Sussman, who has given Women Vote! $2 million this cycle. Megadonor Sussman has contributed millions to other groups as well, including Priorities USA Action, Working for Us PAC and House Majority PAC.

Planned Parenthood Votes also has jumped in the ring, spending $266,000 attacking Toomey. The super PAC -- which received a majority of its money from conservationist Amy Goldman Fowler and Jonathan Soros, CEO of JS Capital Management LLC, and his wife -- also has spent $1.1 million backing Hillary Clinton and $343,000 against Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.). And a nonprofit social welfare group, Majority Forward, has invested $717,000 in attacking Toomey. The nonprofit shares a D.C. address with Senate Majority PAC, which has received payments from Majority Forward adding up to at least $417,000 since last August. It ranks sixth in spending this cycle among politically active nonprofits that aren't required to disclose their donors, such as 501(c)(4) social welfare groups and 501(c)(6) trade associations.

The biggest spender in the race, however, is on the other end of the political spectrum: the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The national business lobby has put its biggest chunk of cash in Pennsylvania, $3.7 million. It has spent almost $13.7 million on eleven other congressional contests this year, also playing big in the Nevada, New Hampshire and Ohio Senate races.

About one-quarter of all money spent in the race, or $4.4 million, came from three politically active nonprofits -- also known as dark money groups.

Other notable conservative spenders include the Koch billionaires' super PAC Freedom Partners Action Fund, which has spent about $2.8 million so far, and the free-market, limited government advocacy group, Club for Growth, which spent about $540,000 through its PAC and super PAC. Toomey was the group's president from 2005 to 2009.

"Toomey is liked across the whole spectrum of the Republican party, from the national establishment to the Club for Growth side," said Kyle Kondik, a political analyst at the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. "He can generate more support from outside groups than someone who only has one dimensional support in a fractured party."

Researchers Anya Gelernt-Dunkle and Anna Massoglia contributed to this post.