A screenshot from an ad attacking Tom Wolf, the Democratic nominee in the Pennsylvania governor race, paid for by Tom Corbett for Governor. Tom Corbett for Governor/Youtube
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Kitchen cabinet magnate Tom Wolf has tapped his own considerable wealth to help blanket Pennsylvania’s airwaves with more than $11 million worth of television ads, surging ahead of a crowded Democratic primary field and opening up a lead in the general election polls against incumbent Republican Gov. Tom Corbett.

His bid is also getting help from two political groups, PA Families First and NextGen Climate Action Committee, which have already aired an unprecedented $3 million in ads themselves, 10 times more independent spending than occurred statewide in 2010.

Fueled in part by Wolf and also the political groups empowered by a U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Pennsylvania is on top of the heap for ad spending so far in state-level races in 2014, with more than $37 million already spent, followed by Texas ($36.8 million), Florida ($33.7 million), Illinois ($26.4 million) and New York ($14.5 million).

Through Sept. 8, one day before the final five state primary elections, more than $280 million nationwide was spent on television ads promoting and attacking candidates running for state political office in 2014.

The total is actually a third less than at a comparable point in 2010, but more money was provided by independent groups like those in Pennsylvania, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of data from media tracking service Kantar Media/CMAG.

More than 90 of these non-candidate organizations have spent $55 million to shape state-level races in 30 states, accounting for roughly 19 percent of state-level political ad dollars. Four years ago, such groups spent $50 million and made up only 12 percent of spending. That translates to about 30,000 more ads this cycle from such groups.

The top spending independent groups so far are the Republican Governors Association at $11.4 million, Florida’s conservative Let’s Get to Work political committee ($10.8 million), the Democratic Governors Association ($5.1 million), the union-backed Illinois Freedom Political Action Committee ($4.9 million) and the aforementioned NextGen Climate Action Committee ($2.3 million), created by California hedge fund manager and environmentalist Tom Steyer.


The increase in spending by non-candidate committees can be traced in part to the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, decided early in 2010. The ruling gave the green light to unions and corporations to spend unlimited funds on ads supporting or opposing candidates.

Such spending is significant because contributions from corporations and labor unions to candidates in most states are either limited or banned altogether.

Citizens United and a separate lower-court decision led to the creation of super PACs and political nonprofits, which collect such donations and spend the money on advertising and other election materials. The decision forced 24 states including Pennsylvania, which limited such spending, to change their laws.

Even in some states, where the decision had no legal impact, there has still been an increase in spending from such groups. In Nebraska, independent groups upended the traditional dynamic by helping push political outsider and tea party favorite Pete Ricketts ahead of establishment candidate Attorney General Jon Bruning to win the GOP nomination for governor in the May primary.

“Nebraska has never seen the kind of third-party spending like it saw in 2014 from a state perspective,” said Jordan McGrain, the former executive director of the state’s Republican Party who led Bruning’s campaign. “The parties play a role, but at least in Nebraska, it’s no longer a kingmaker role.”

While it’s a midterm cycle for federal elections, more than 6,300 political seats are at stake in the states — the most in four years.

Though television ads are not the only campaign tool used in politics, they do indicate which races are the most competitive and expensive.