On a single day last week, Ann Ravel sorted through the 15 pieces of election-related mail that arrived at her California home. Some 10 times that number pounded into her digital inbox.
Urgent messages came from campaigns in Wisconsin, Colorado, Nevada, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and different parts of California. One was a plea from an account called Joe and Barack United to “ANSWER our beloved Presidents’ dire warnings and DEFEND the most important House Majority in history from Republican destruction.”
“It’s just stunning how many e-mails I have gotten in one day,” said Ms. Ravel, a lecturer at UC Berkeley School of Law and a former head of the Federal Election Commission. “It’s literally hundreds of them that are asking for money.”
OpenSecrets, a non-profit that tracks election spending, estimates US$16.7-billion will be spent on these elections, the most ever for a midterm vote, which will determine who controls Congress and occupies governor’s mansions in dozens of states.
On American television screens, the deluge of political ads has grown so overpowering that some markets sold out of space days ago. In Phoenix this weekend, at least one television station cut in to morning programming to run election-related commercials. Online spaces, too, are saturated.
“The internet provides plenty of ways to spend your money,” said Sarah Bryner, director of research and strategy with OpenSecrets. And battles over abortion, books in schools and rights for transgender people have prompted people to open wallets. “Culture-war issues certainly are motivating for donors,” she said.
U.S. courts have refused to limit election spending, with the Supreme Court deciding in the 2010 Citizens United case that to constrain corporate and other contributions would amount to a curb on free speech.
But the amount being spent on the midterms – equivalent to nearly half the gross domestic product of the state of Vermont – has added to concerns about the corrupting influence of money.
“I think it’s terribly unfortunate for our country. As it is, we’re in the midst of a really serious democratic backsliding,” Ms. Ravel said. And the “excess of money, in particular money where it’s hard to know who the source is, is really incredibly undemocratic.”
For donors, however, the tallies this year are a demonstration of new confidence. “A big driver of this spending has been that the Democrats have finally caught up to the GOP in routing money through political non-profits,” said Stan Oklobdzija, a visiting scholar at the UC Riverside, School of Public Policy.
The legality of such donations was once considered uncertain. But after Republican-affiliated groups began pushing the boundaries, “the fact that no one got in trouble finally gave the Democrats the push to start mimicking these strategies,” Mr. Oklobdzija said.
At least five U.S. Senate races – in Georgia, Pennsylvania, Florida, Arizona and Ohio – have crested the $100-million mark each. A single ballot proposition in California on online betting has drawn more than US$400-million in spending.
“Campaign ads make a difference. Negative ads work. They just do,” said Mick Mulvaney, a former White House chief of staff to then-president Donald Trump.
He sees political polarization as a galvanizing influence. For a Democratic voter, “Am I willing to spend $25 to try and protect abortion rights? Yes,” Mr. Mulvaney said. Similarly, for a Republican, “Am I willing to spend $25 to try and get inflation down? Yes.”
Still, even those deeply involved in election advertising have been left agog by the sums involved.
“For midterms it’s just nuts,” said Beth Becker, a digital strategist who works with Democratic candidates.
She sees risk in the tactics being employed. Big spending on headline candidates has hurt small campaigns, some of which have called Ms. Becker asking what they can do with just $1,000.
Meanwhile, the big spenders, she says, risk poisoning the waters. Campaigns have spent years building up lists of e-mail addresses and phone numbers for text-message solicitation, databases curated to reach voters receptive to political messages. Now, they have “started to burn it all to the ground, because people haven’t been following best practices and respecting the audience,” Ms. Becker said. Social media is filled with complaints from people receiving dozens of unwanted e-mails.
Laws against spam don’t apply to political messages, which qualify as protected speech under the country’s First Amendment. That allows campaigns to sell distribution lists without disclosure. Meanwhile, a lack of quorum left the Federal Election Commission, which oversees federal campaign finance law, able to meet only 29 days between September, 2019, and December, 2020.
“It was kind of a free-for-all, because nobody was getting punished for anything,” Ms. Becker said.
The FEC has recently been more active, issuing citations to campaigns for failure to file required financial reports and publishing a series of advisory opinions. “There have been periods when the FEC operated without a working quorum of four commissioners; however, at present, the agency does not find itself to be in such a position,” Christian Hilland, deputy press officer with the commission, said in a statement.
Meanwhile, some of the most-watched campaigns in the U.S. have downplayed the value of advertising. Kari Lake, the charismatic former television anchor now running as the Republican candidate for Arizona governor, has dismissed political ads as white noise. She is running alongside Mark Finchem, the Republican candidate for secretary of state, who has sought to make a virtue of a small advertising budget.
“The Democrats are outspending me 15 to one,” he said. But, he argued, “There’s this thing called diminishing returns. And it’s actually angering voters now. Keep up the good work. You’re helping me.”
Bill Goodykoontz, media critic for the Arizona Republic, counts himself among those who see political ads as poisoning the airwaves. A professional television viewer, he tunes in to sports as a respite. That’s been hard to find when commercial slots fill up with political ads, many of them negative.
“Honestly, they just feel so toxic. And afterwards, you don’t feel like watching the game. You feel like taking a shower or something,” he said. “I think it’s corrosive.” He has found himself pining for something more light-hearted, like “a good car commercial or a good beer commercial – where everybody is having fun.”