Record-smashing Iowa Senate race fuels deluge of final-stretch campaign spending
When Shane Brisker sees political advertisements, he always thinks about where else that money could be spent. And this election cycle, the political independent from Davenport has had the thought a lot.
“It’s everywhere,” said Brisker, a 48-year-old who works in insurance. “It’s on the street corner, it’s on the TV, it’s on my phone, it’s everywhere.”
Iowa is home to less than 1% of the U.S. population but is home to the second-most-expensive Senate race in U.S. history. The cost of its Senate race trails only the one happening this year in North Carolina, a state with three times the population of Iowa. It's ahead of the third-most-expensive race ever, Florida in 2018, a state with more than six times the population of Iowa.
The massive spending reflects the high-stakes, expensive bet that political parties and interests put on the tilt of the U.S. Senate.
As of Oct. 13, more than $208 million had already been spent or reserved in Iowa television advertising alone across all federal elections, according to tracking firm Advertising Analytics. And that huge number will only grow in the next few weeks.
That spending would be more than $100 per registered voter in the state — and far, far more than that per undecided voter.
Iowa election 2020: How long until polls close on Election Day?
The candidates themselves have hauled in record-breaking sums. Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate Theresa Greenfield alone raised $28.7 million in the most recent three months. That's more than Republican U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst and her Democrat opponent raised, combined, in 2014.
Ernst reported raising $7.18 million in her last filing, which covers July 1 through Sept. 30, and has already raised more than her 2014 total.
Massive spending on the US Senate race
Nearly two-thirds of the $208 million advertising bookings in Iowa this year has been spent to sway voters in the Ernst-Greenfield Senate race.
And of that, 75% — $113 million — is being spent by outside groups that include the political parties and issue groups aimed at things like gun regulations or specific industries, like banking.
Those outside groups are spending to support both candidates about equally — Ernst has $54 million backing her and Greenfield's allies have booked about $59 million.
“The money wouldn't be spent if it doesn't influence, right?" Advertising Analytics Director of Sales John Link said in an interview. Citing a study his company did with Nielsen, the TV ratings firm, he added, “The data clearly shows that broadcast television is by far the most effective vehicle for influencing and messaging.”
More will be spent as Election Day nears, even if thousands of Iowans have already cast ballots, he said, predicting a final surge of anything-goes spending on satellite, radio and digital ads as campaigns seek to spend their reserves — particularly Greenfield and her overflowing war chest.
The $113 million spent by the parties and other outside groups underlines how important the Iowa Senate race is for plotting the future of the country. The total spent on Iowa's Senate race since July 1, $170 million, is the second-highest in the country, Link said, behind only the $212 million spent on the North Carolina race.
Each race on the most expensive list features a Republican incumbent seen as vulnerable. And each is a potential linchpin for determining which party controls the Senate for the next two years. The Republicans hold a narrow majority now, with 53 seats, and each party has incumbents seen as unlikely to hold onto their seats.
In Iowa, groups aligned with the Democratic and Republican parties have spent much of the advertising cash — about $82 million of it. That's a sign that they see Iowa as ripe for the picking.
"There's no way the parties are going to spend $30 or 50 million in aggregate on this race if it isn't seen as vulnerable," Link said.
Outside issue-focused groups are also weighing in. The pro-gun regulation committee Brady PAC partnered with WOMEN VOTE!, the Emily’s List-aligned PAC aimed at electing Democratic women who support abortion rights, on a $1 million ad buy to support Greenfield.
The ad attacks Ernst on comments she made about possibly privatizing Social Security as an option for making it solvent, before pivoting to boost Greenfield for her anti-corporate PAC money pledge.
In an interview, Brady PAC Executive Director Brian Lemek acknowledged that the ad doesn’t speak to his group’s priorities. But he thinks his group will be able to work on gun issues better with Greenfield and a Democratic Senate than Ernst and a Republican Senate.
“You just get sick of candidates at some point,” Lemek said. “Some political ads can have that effect. I don't think we're there with Iowa yet. The political climate is such that everyone is engaged."
US House and presidential races netting millions
Every campaign cycle since the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. FEC has set spending records, said Brendan Fischer, director of federal reform with the Campaign Legal Center. He said public polling finds broad support for overhauling the system.
While the deluge of ads can lead to voter exhaustion, particularly in swing states like Iowa, "the broader impact of money in our political system is that voters are disillusioned because they perceive politics as titled toward the interest of wealthy donors who can afford to fund super PACs and dark money groups."
"We should not only be concerned about money in politics because of the number of TV ads we see, and the number of mailers we receive at home; we should be concerned how it has a broader effect on the political system as a whole," Fischer said.
It's not just the U.S. Senate race that's rolling in cash. The candidates for Iowa's four U.S. House seats and their allies have already booked more than $42 million in advertising. Of that, candidates are responsible for about 30% of that spending — the rest has come from outside groups, like the parties and PACs.
In advertising, and in fundraising generally, Democratic candidates have a distinct advantage in cash:
- In the 1st Congressional District, which covers the northeast quarter of the state, Democrat incumbent U.S. Rep. Abby Finkenauer reported $1.45 million raised in the third quarter, and $619,000 in cash on hand on Oct. 1. Republican challenger state Rep. Ashley Hinson reported $1.6 million raised and $731,500 on hand. Hinson was the only Republican to outraise an opponent this quarter in any of Iowa's federal elections.
- In the race for the open 2nd Congressional District seat, which covers the southeast quarter, Democrat Rita Hart reported $1.45 million raised and $986,000 on hand. Republican state Sen. Mariannette Miller-Meeks reported $514,000 raised and $383,500 on hand.
- In the 3rd Congressional District, which covers the southwest corner of the state and includes Des Moines, incumbent Democrat U.S. Rep. Cindy Axne reported $1.525 million raised and $1.6 million on hand. Republican former U.S. Rep. David Young, seeking to reclaim the seat Axne won from him in 2018, reported $820,000 raised and $1 million on hand.
- In the 4th Congressional District, which covers the northwest portion of the state, Republican state Sen. Randy Feenstra, who unseated incumbent U.S. Rep. Steve King in the June primary, reported $457,000 raised and $275,000 on hand. Democrat J.D. Scholten, making a consecutive bid for the seat, reported $815,000 raised and $639,000 on hand.
While the race between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden will lead all ballots, it is not the leader in money spent in Iowa.
According to Advertising Analytics data, Trump's and Biden's campaigns have each booked about $3 million in airtime. Groups supporting Trump have spent far more on advertising in the state than those supporting Biden, but all their spending is dwarfed by the cash being devoted to Iowa's congressional races.
Candidates' claim: Grassroots, not cash, is king
Neither Senate candidate agreed to a request for an interview about fundraising, though each sent prewritten statements. Both statements claimed the "grassroots," not money, will influence the race's outcome.
Izzi Levy, a spokesperson for Greenfield’s campaign, sent a statement touting “the largest grassroots team in the history of an Iowa U.S. Senate race,” with donations from all 99 counties and no corporate PAC money.
“With less than three weeks to go before Election Day and Iowans already going to the polls, we’re competing for every last vote,” Levy said in the statement. “We’re making strategic investments to reach voters and get out the vote in every corner of the state, including radio and newspaper ads, Spanish-language communications, building on our robust digital infrastructure, and increasing visibility efforts by ramping up distribution of yard signs and barn signs throughout the state.”
Ernst campaign spokesperson Brendan Conley touted a campaign “fueled by strong Iowa grassroots” before attacking Greenfield for being “the single biggest beneficiary of special interest money in the history of Iowa." While Greenfield has raised far more money for her campaign than Ernst has, the millions in advertising dollars from outside groups have been about split between the two candidates.
“More than $100 million is being spent for her by extreme, coastal liberal friends to try and buy Iowa’s Senate seat,” Conley said in the statement. “While $100 million is certainly a ridiculous amount of money, it clearly costs much more when you have to lie about who you really are.”
Brisker, the Davenport voter, encouraged people to “do their homework” before voting and not let signs or ads make their decisions for them.
"I don't care if they spend another billion dollars between now and Nov. 1, it's not going to change my opinion," Brisker said.
Not that it would matter if one did break through. Brisker, like thousands of Iowans, has already voted.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled U.S. Rep. Abby Finkenauer's first name. It has been updated.
Nick Coltrain is a politics and data reporter for the Register. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 515-284-8361.