With the election still five months away, attack ads have already hit the airwaves in Michigan’s gubernatorial race thanks to two national organizations that are on pace to break spending records this fall as they duel over governorships in 36 states.
Through March, the Republican Governors Association has spent five times more around the country than it did at the same point four years ago while the Democratic Governors Association's overall spending is double what it was in 2010, according to data from the Internal Revenue Service.
Both groups are “527s,” tax-exempt organizations named for the IRS code they fall under, which can accept unlimited amounts of money from individuals, corporations and unions. Depending on state rules, the money can be given directly to candidates or as independent advertising to goose a campaign.
Much of the money spent so far has been used on so-called outside spending, the controversial political advertising created independently of candidates. The two groups are typically the largest state outside spenders across the country, so their increased early spending likely indicates that outside spending will be higher across the board this election cycle.
Already the RGA has spent more than $15 million overall on its operations. By comparison, the group had spent just over $3 million through March in 2010, part of more than $110 million spent during the cycle that helped the party pick up five governorships previously held by Democrats.
At least $5 million of that 2014 spending has been used to flood the airwaves with early ads, including in the Michigan race that pits incumbent Republican Gov. Rick Snyder against presumed Democratic challenger Mark Schauer.
Snyder has been attacked for making cuts to education while his presumed Democratic opponent has been criticized for his support of the federal stimulus package when he served in Congress.
Michigan’s primary is in August.
The RGA has also targeted races with ads in Arkansas, Georgia, New Mexico, Ohio, South Carolina and Wisconsin.
Separately the D.C.-based group has given $2.5 million directly to a committee supporting Florida’s Republican incumbent, Rick Scott, and $1.5 million to a committee supporting the Republican challenger in Illinois, Bruce Rauner, along with contributions to Republican groups in Texas, Maine, Pennsylvania and Kansas.
So far this cycle, the DGA has put up ads in Michigan and given more than $500,000 to a group active in the open Arkansas gubernatorial race. Overall it spent more than $6.75 million on its operations through March, compared with the $3.15 million it had spent at that point in 2010.
While most of the RGA focus so far has been on defending Republican incumbents, RGA spokesman Jon Thompson says that will change soon.
“We are focused on offense, too,” he said in an e-mail.
The RGA’s initial focus on seats already held by Republicans makes sense, said Kyle Kondik, a political analyst at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.
“The RGA and the DGA are first incumbent-protection groups,” he said.
The RGA’s spending spree has been fueled by record fundraising so far this year.
While there were some concerns that the fundraising abilities of RGA Chairman and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie might be hampered by the so-called “bridgegate” scandal in New Jersey, the Christie-led RGA raised more than $22 million in the first three months of the year, nearly 2.5 times what it raised in 2010 and nearly double the DGA haul this year. While second quarter numbers won’t be available until July, the RGA’s Thompson said they will show continued strong fundraising and spending levels.
Despite being outgunned, the DGA has increased its early spending, in part, to help counteract the RGA’s fatter wallet by increasing awareness of their candidates earlier in the race.
"We find that a lot of times early spending is an effective investment," said DGA spokesman Danny Kanner.
Kondik suggested the early spending may be inspired by President Barack Obama and his campaign’s early focus on attacking GOP nominee Mitt Romney.
“People looked at the Obama 2012 campaign and thought that early ad spending was effective,” he said. “They’d like for these races to not be competitive.”
However RGA spokesman Thompson said that his group’s early spending isn’t just a front-loaded push. Instead, he said, it plans to continue to spend heavily throughout the year.
That doesn’t mean Republicans gubernatorial candidates can necessarily count on more outside spending support than their Democratic counterparts.
An analysis of 2012 outside spending showed that a coalition of Democratic groups, including the DGA, and labor unions actually outspent pro-Republican groups in state races.