It’s a uniquely New York math problem: How did Republican New York State Senate candidates widely outspend their Democratic rivals and still lose key races — and with them, possibly, control of the State Senate?
The answer has much to do with independent expenditures: millions of dollars spent by third parties to swing the elections. So-called “dark money” unleashed in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision did little to tip the scales in races for the White House and Congress. But in the battle for the New York State Senate, where GOP candidates started out with more substantial war chests than their Democratic opponents, independent cash appears to have played a sizeable role.
In at least five crucial state Senate contests, Republicans drastically outspent their opponents, sometimes as much as four-to-one, only to lose their races or fight them down to the final absentee ballots. Cash-poor Democrats got a significant boost from at least two quarters: the New York State United Teachers (NYSUT) union and groups focused on campaign finance reform.
Take one of the most hotly contested races this year, between Democratic incumbent Joseph Addabbo and City Councilman Eric Ulrich for control of an eastern Queens state Senate district. While financial disclosures detailing spending in the final days of the campaign are not due until later this month, previous filings show that by the fourth week of October Ulrich had already spent over $900,000, while Addabbo’s expenses added up to just over $300,000.
But the incumbent, who won the race by claiming 57 percent of the vote, also benefited from independent spending from NYSUT. Statewide, the teachers union has spent a reported $4.5 million on a total of five state Senate races.
“When you do an independent expenditure, you basically create an entire campaign,” said Doug Forand, a political strategist who was a political strategist hired by the teachers unions to run campaigns to influence several races, including the Addabbo/Ulrich contest. “You do everything you would do in a regular campaign, except talk with the candidate.”
The union worked to help vault Democrat George Latimer into an open seat in Westchester, while up the Hudson River it pushed voters to oust GOP incumbent Stephen Saland, in a race that will be decided by a count of abesentee ballots.
Another Westchester Democrat who received aid from the teachers, Justin Wagner, has not yet conceded to incumbent Greg Ball in a tight race in which voting machines have been impounded. And near Rochester, the union supported Ted O’Brien, who defeated Republican Assemblymember Sean Hanna in the race to win the Senate seat in District 55.
A spokesperson for the union, Carl Korn, declined to confirm the figure pending release of post-election financial filings with the state Board of Elections, which will be publicly available in early December.
The teachers union wasn’t the only independent spender looking to nudge the Addabbo/Ulrich race. A Virginia-based group called Common Sense Principles sent an onslaught of campaign mailers trashing Addabbo to voters in the district. “JOSEPH ADDABBO’S HIGHER TAXES HURT WORKING FAMILIES,” screamed one. But Forand thinks his side actually benefited from the attacks on the Democrat.
“There’s a point of diminishing return in political spending,” said Forand. “You can only message people so many times.”
As in federal elections, blistering independent attacks — uncoordinated with campaigns that had already sponsored their own ad campaigns — may have sparked a backlash among deluged voters. Common Sense Principles also sent negative mailers about Democratic Assemblymember George Latimer to voters in Westchester County’s 37th Senate District, where he was competing against Republican Bob Cohen for a newly open seat. Latimer won.
“It became overwhelming. I don’t mean to criticize people that were trying to help us, but I’m not sure the mail had the right tone for the district,” said Bill O’Reilly, a communications consultant hired by the Cohen campaign, noting that the overtly negative flavor of the Common Sense message as well as the overall abundance of campaign mail may have been off-putting to the electorate.
“After a while when voters have seen too many ads, they stop watching ads. When they get too much mail, they stop reading mail.”
Cohen spent more than $1 million, while Latimer laid out about $500,000. O’Reilly says it is to be expected that a Republican candidate would have to outspend his opponent in a district with a relatively high number of registered Democrats: “If you’re unable to introduce yourself to voters, they will just stay home or vote the party line.”
But whatever financial advantage Cohen had, it may have been eroded by the teachers union, which also invested in the Westchester race. “It’s hard to measure what did what,” said O’Reilly, of the many factors that affected the election, but acknowledged that the NYSUT mailers and ads probably played a role. “It had to have had some effect.”
Independent spenders also played a role in the contest for the newly created Senate District 46 near Albany, the lines of which the legislature redrew earlier this year to facilitate a Republican win. In that race, Assemblymember George Amedore spent at least $685,000; his opponent, Cecilia Tkaczyk, spent around $156,000 on her campaign.
But Tkaczyk got much more financial support than that, from two outside spenders who earlier this year pledged to pour half a million dollars into the race. One, Protect Our Democracy, is headed by Sean Eldridge, the husband of Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes; together they have contributed more than $250,000 this year to the Protect Our Democracy state political action committee.
A second spender, Friends of Democracy, has received backing from Jonathon Soros, son of financier George Soros. Ilyse Hogue, who co-directs the campaign finance reform group, calculates that it spent as much as $270,000 to influence the outcome in Tkaczyk’s race.
“One of the things that we know is that the candidate with the most money does not always win,” said Hogue, whose group, paradoxically, seeks to diminish the influence of big contributors and independent spending on political campaigns. “But the candidate with the least money can lose if those resources are so out of balance that only one candidate has an opportunity to make their case to voters.”
The group backed congressional candidates in New York and other states, but Tkaczyk’s was the only New York Senate race it took on. “We went into this with the hypothesis that there is a saturation level of ads that once you pass it is just throwing good money after bad,” explained Hogue.
Ultimately many factors — including heavy Democratic turnout to support the reelection of President Obama — influenced this year’s Senate races.
“There is always more than one ingredient that goes into making a successful stew,” said Korn of the teachers union, noting that the union had an unprecedented number of volunteers involved in this year’s election. “Certainly you have to have money to be in the game, and if your candidate is underfunded, independent expenditures can be helpful. But what’s more helpful, which you can’t buy, is having hundreds of volunteers out there knocking on doors and making phone calls.”
Still, this year’s flood of independent spending previews what New York State may see from outside spenders in future races. “First, you need to expect that that labor and teachers will continue to use independent expenditures,” Forand predicted. “Second, the best application is when a candidate is fighting an uphill [financial] battle.”
But party leaders aren’t banking on the money, either — or convinced that it makes a difference. State Senator Jose Peralta, who co-chairs the New York State Democratic Senate Committee, remains skeptical that independent spenders decided the races his party won.
“It helped,” said Peralta. “But it’s a lot of hypotheticals about what would have happened if it was not around.”
Updated Nov. 15 to add report of $4.5 million in New York State United Teachers independent spending.