Out-of-state interests are increasingly spending money and spending it earlier in attempt to influence Oklahoma’s congressional races.
Recently released campaign finance records show nearly half of all money raised so far among the 39 candidates running for one of the state’s five U.S. House seats has come from out of state.
An Oklahoma Watch analysis of the filings found that individuals or political action committees based outside the state have spent nearly $3.2 million on the campaigns. Two well-funded national groups have spent an additional $471,000 through independent expenditures.
Meanwhile, in-state donors contributed about $2.2 million to the campaigns and candidates contributed or loaned slightly more than $1 million to their own campaigns. Small, unitemized donations, which don’t require a donor’s name or address, accounted for an additional $288,000.
The total out-of-state donations recorded so far this election cycle, which includes contributions from Jan. 1, 2017, through June 8, 2018, has already exceeded the outside money spent on campaigns during the full 2014 election cycle. And with months until the November general election, this year’s amount is on pace to exceed the $3.8 million in out-of-state money spent during the 2016 cycle.
Congressional candidates, who vote on issues that affect the entire country, have long been the recipients of money from special interests or wealthy individuals outside the candidates’ constituencies. No Federal Election Commission rules limit donations based on residency.
But some campaign watchdogs warn that when a sizable amount of out-of-state money floods a race, it threatens to dilute constituents’ influence.
Joe Ready, director of the nonprofit U.S. Public Interest Research Group’s Democracy for the People Campaign, said the increase in out-of-state donations in Oklahoma’s races seems to be following a national trend.
“Ultimately, what we are seeing is out-of-state interests are giving vast amounts of money where they have no sort of vested interest,” he said. “Our position is candidates should be supported by their constituents, and when a candidate gets most from outside their constituents, it is only natural to have a question about it.”
Most Goes to GOP Incumbents
The four Republicans running to retain their U.S. House seats – Tom Cole, Markwayne Mullin, Frank Lucas and Steve Russell – lead all candidates in the amount of out-of-state money that has poured into the congressional campaigns.
The four candidates have taken in between $431,000 and $884,000 from out-of-state donors. The out-of-state money accounts for at least 70 percent of each candidate’s fundraising total so far this election cycle.
This largely comes from political action committees that represent a range of industries and special interest groups and are based in and around Washington, D.C.
Lucas’ campaign is most dependent on out-of-state money, which made up about 94 percent of his $713,200 total.
This contrasts with the fundraising strategies of the four incumbents’ challengers, who have relied predominantly on in-state donors to fund their campaigns.
Of the nonincumbent candidates for these four seats, only Second District challengers Jarrin Jackson and Clay Padgett, has taken in more out-of-state money than in-state money.
The four incumbents, who lead their challengers in total fundraising, are all favorites to win their primaries and re-election. Neither the candidates nor their campaigns responded to questions about the influence of out-of-state money on their races.
Ready said it’s not a surprise that outside groups will want to back an incumbent even if their contribution likely won’t sway the election.
He said groups frequently donate to win favor with a candidate or at least help ensure the candidate will take their calls while in office.
Ready pointed to recent comments from Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Director and former congressman Mick Mulvaney, who said that when he was in office, “If you’re a lobbyist who never gave us money, I didn’t talk to you. If you’re a lobbyist who gave us money, I might talk to you.”
Spotlight on Fifth District
The University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, which tracks the competitiveness of each congressional race, lists Mullin’s, Lucas’ and Cole’s seats as “safe Republican.”
Of the state’s five House seats, only Russell’s Fifth District seat, which covers Oklahoma City and the surrounding area, is given the less secure “likely Republican” rating.
Russell’s best-funded competitor is Democrat Kendra Horn, who, like Russell, must win the June 26 primary to make it to the general election.
Horn has raised about $372,000 – more than four times what her four Democratic rivals have raised combined.
Of Horn’s total, at least 70 percent is from Oklahoman donors. The proportion of Oklahoma donations is likely to be even greater because more than $46,000 comes from D.C.-based ActBlue, an online nonprofit that acts as a conduit for individuals to give small donations to candidates.
It is impossible to tell what the share of in-state versus out-of-state money processed through ActBlue is, but Horn said her self-reported tally shows 92 percent of her donations come from Oklahomans.
“We’re proud 92 percent of contributions are from thousands of Oklahomans who want the country to move in a different direction on education and health care,” she said. “People are frustrated, and they’re motivated to support a campaign that wants to shake up the way things are being done.”
Russell, who didn’t respond to a request for comment, has raised about $620,000. This includes about 70 percent coming from out-of-state donors. As with most of Russell’s fellow incumbents, much of this comes from D.C.-area political action committees.
Spotlight on First District
The First District, which covers Tulsa and the northeast corner of the state, became the state’s only open U.S. House race after former U.S. Rep. Jim Bridenstine became the new NASA administrator.
More money has flowed into this race than any of Oklahoma’s other congressional contests.
All of the candidates in the race have received a much greater share of in-state dollars than out-of-state money.
But that’s not the case with outside groups seeking to influence the election through independent expenditure groups. These groups can express support or opposition to a candidate but can’t coordinate with campaigns.
Earlier this month, a Virginia-based veterans group, With Honor Fund, spent nearly $200,000 to support Andy Coleman in the First District primary contest. The Club for Growth, a free-market conservative group based in the District of Columbia, also spent $272,000 to oppose Kevin Hern, who leads First District candidates in total fundraising.
Ready said so-called “dark money” spending, in which the source of donations is hidden, is an area where outside money can have the most influence.
“It’s one thing for someone out of state to give $100 or $1,000,” he said. “But when they can spend thousands or a million dollars or more, that can have a big impact.”