Our biggest money-in-politics story for 2019 was actually 2020, which promises to be the most expensive election year ever.
With the 2020 election in high gear almost as soon as the new Democratic majority was sworn into the House and the likelihood of impeachment (with possible campaign finance violations and foreign influence campaigns playing starring roles) growing, the year’s news hit the ground running.For those of you who haven’t had time to read every word of OpenSecrets News this year, don’t worry. As an end-of-year gift, we have compiled our best stories of the year into the holiday reading list below.
As the year kicked off, candidate after candidate after candidate entered the Democratic primary, and our journalists worked to follow the money on every last one. We examined quarterly filings to keep track of who was on top, and kept an eye on who met newly-implemented debate qualification thresholds. As the race continued (and the seemingly unending debates began) we started taking a look at the winnowing field. Using data from itemized contributions, we examined which candidates get the most from working class donors and wealthy donors and did our best to track each candidate’s bundlers.
But the 2020 race is, in many ways, quite different from previous races. President Donald Trump filed to run for reelection the night of his 2017 inauguration. His campaign, bolstered by joint fundraising committees, and the outside groups backing him raised an unprecedented amount before the first Democrat declared their candidacy.
Much of the money already spent on the race has gone toward an expense that would have been virtually unheard of 20 years ago — digital ads. As politicians and advocacy groups pushed for increased transparency on ads run on social media networks, spending on these platforms expanded as well, with presidential candidates surpassing the $100 million mark this fall. A major contributing factor to this digital spending explosion was the entrance of self-funding billionaires Tom Steyer and Mike Bloomberg into the Democratic primary. Both spent millions on digital ads within weeks of joining the race.
That spending isn’t just limited to the race for the White House. As the impeachment inquiry heated up, so did fundraising for Congressional candidates on both sides of the aisle. House Democrats supportive of the impeachment push who won seats in districts Trump carried in 2016 saw a huge flow of cash before many had credible opponents, as did Republicans defending the president (though some were still haunted by controversy). Meanwhile, outside groups, including “dark money” operations, also began to spend heavily with an eye on 2020 Senate races. OpenSecrets revealed the beginnings of a multi-million dollar dark money ad campaign aimed at lawmakers. For the second cycle in a row, “dark money” groups aligned with Democrats have reported more spending than their Republican equivalent. Despite an increase in spending overall, it looks like 2016’s top dark money spender may not be able to claim that title in 2020.
In 2019, OpenSecrets continued to follow the growing influence of women donors as they increased their presence in the political giving realm following Trump’s election. Women donors are playing a bigger role in the 2020 race than ever before, and their favorite candidates aren’t always the candidates who raise the most overall.
Speaking of Trump, one of OpenSecrets’ most popular projects of the year was a look into the President’s ongoing foreign business interests. Our study found that he continued to hold more than $130 million in foreign assets as his second year in office came to a close. We also continued to follow the money spent by political entities at properties that the Trump family continues to profit from — that spending surpassed $20 million this year, $16.8 million of which can be attributed to Trump-related campaign committees.
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We also continued to keep an eye on the persisting presence of “shadow lobbying” as political operatives and lobbyists continue to take spins through the revolving door between government and the private sector, despite pledges to “drain the swamp.” With (again) no action from Congress in 2019, undisclosed lobbying activities are still running rampant. Meanwhile, the fastest-growing firms are those with ties to the Trump administration.Our Foreign Lobby Watch tool, which allows anyone to sort through documents filed under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, continued to improve its ever-increasing vitality this year, illuminating influence efforts from Ukraine, Turkey, China, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria and more that sought to sway U.S. leaders. Like domestic lobbying, the world of foreign influence also features some familiar faces who have passed through the revolving door. Our biggest FARA scoop of the year discovered that the Russian government sent more than $1.4 million to a Florida-based company airing Kremlin propaganda in Washington over the past two years. Looking to the future, the OpenSecrets team is doing everything we can to help you follow the money in the 2020 race. With primary season just around the corner, and fundraising pleas already filling your inbox, we’ve added sector and industry totals to our presidential section as well as tools to help you track which White House hopeful is getting the most from small donors, who is getting the most support from outside groups, which candidates are the wealthiest and what campaigns are spending on digital ads. As we head into 2020 (and the 10th anniversary of Citizens United) there is no doubt in our minds there will be A LOT to talk about in the money-in-politics realm. Thank you for joining us in 2019 as we celebrated more than 35 years of counting cash and making change. We hope to see you again in 2020.
Source…. OPENSECRETS NEWS