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The Money Behind The Midterms


The special congressional election in Pennsylvania last week attracted a lot of outside money, specifically from big donors. With the fall midterms creeping ever closer, a lot more funding will soon be pouring into races around the country. But both the Democratic and Republican parties are divided. So who are the big donors backing? Incumbents? Insurgents? Here in the studio to help us sort through it is Carrie Levine. She's a senior political reporter for the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit news organization. And she tracks public donations. Welcome to the program.

CARRIE LEVINE: Thank you very much for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So let's start with the broad lay of the land. How much money do big donors pour into races generally, and how influential are they?

LEVINE: Big donors can give hundreds of millions of dollars. They can really get into just huge sums of money. And so this year, when you're talking about a mid-term congressional election instead of a presidential election, that money is going to play out across 50 states. It's going to play out across hot Senate races. And it's going to play out in little, mini, pitched battles across House races. And so it has a very different impact than it does in the presidential.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: How so? An outsize impact?

LEVINE: In some congressional districts, it can. You know, it takes a lot less money to saturate a House district with ads than it does to tip something in the presidential.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Let's break down some of the names. There are some names, of course, that we recognize - Robert Mercer. He was a backer of Steve Bannon. But he cut the cord after Bannon's unflattering remarks about the president came out in the book "Fire And Fury." So who is he looking to now?

LEVINE: Well, so far - and it's interesting that you bring up Robert Mercer - he and his daughter Rebecca have been, you know, very active on the political landscape. And they are very independent. They had worked with the Koch network for some time but formed their own superPAC in 2016 and are known for being willing to back candidates that don't always win, frankly. He's given money so far this election cycle to a primary candidate in the Arizona Senate race, Kelli Ward, who had previously run against John McCain, didn't win. But he's backing her again. So that kind of thing shows he's really willing to go a little bit against the establishment party, which is looking for primary candidates who they see as very viable in the general election.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: How happy are Republican donors with where the party is at? I mean, you have a president that is popular with the base but widely unpopular in the country. And a lot of donors are unhappy with some of the things that the Republicans have not been able to pass, namely health care.

LEVINE: Right. And I think you do see that. And it's interesting you bring up health care. The Koch network has spent hundreds of millions of dollars over the years running issue ads and other advertising themed around health care, pointing to that as a critical issue for them. And I think you're starting to see them move away from that, move towards touting the tax overhaul that Republicans passed last year as a big achievement. I do think that if the tax overhaul hadn't passed, Republicans would have a lot more problems raising money that cycle. I think that you're going to see some checkbooks more open because they were able to pass that.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Let's turn to the Democrats - you know, oddly less well-known' in terms of just these big names. But we do know Tom Steyer. He is the billionaire hedge fund manager who has become so familiar with his ads calling for the impeachment of President Trump. Where will his money be going?

LEVINE: Mr. Steyer has said that he's going to spend 30 million to help Democrats. He is really supporting the idea of impeaching the president. And so taking the House would allow that to move forward. I think that you're going to see a lot of that money flow into House races, some into Senate and gubernatorial races, which are also important this cycle.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But we do have this split in the Democratic Party, as well, between sort of the more liberal wing, the more activist wing and the other part of the party which is, you know, more traditional. So how will that play out?

LEVINE: I think in terms of the split in the Democratic Party, that could be something that really plays out in primaries - how people get their money. You saw Bernie Sanders in 2016 really rally a small donor base, raise incredible amounts of money from people giving very small amounts - recurring monthly contributions.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: President Trump did, too.

LEVINE: President Trump did, too. And so on both sides, you have this. But speaking about the Democrats and the split in the Democratic Party, I think one question you have going forward is, are there people who can tap into that small donor base and raise money for the party in a different way - the way that Bernie Sanders did? And so I think that money is going to flow into the midterms, and we're going to see who's effective in raising it.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Carrie Levine is a senior political reporter for the Center for Public Integrity. Thank you so much.

LEVINE: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.