Interactive Map: Counting the Counties with Top Spending in 2015 Elections

Colleen O'Dea | January 29, 2016 | Map of the Week, Maps
An at-a-glance assessment of which political party spent the most and where they spent it

The major political parties’ county committees spent nearly $9 million last year, an indication that these organizations are increasingly taking a back seat in campaign funding to independent special-interest groups.

On Thursday, the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission released the latest of a series of analyses on spending during the 2015 election cycle. It shows how the landscape of campaign spending has changed in the state since the beginning of the century, influenced by federal laws and court cases that gave these special-interest groups more freedom to spend on elections.

The $9.1 million in funds raised and $8.9 million spent by the Democratic and Republican parties in the counties in 2015 exceeded the prior year’s activity by more than $1 million, but it was only about a third as much as these groups were contributing at their peak in 2003. That year, when the entire Legislature was up for reelection, the county parties spent $28.1 million.

Back then, the county political organizations were often part of a process known as “wheeling,” in which contributions meant for one candidate are funneled through others in an effort to skirt campaign contribution limits. Under state law, the county committees can receive $37,000 per year in contributions from sources on which there are restrictions, the largest amount allowed in all cases except for one — national political parties can give $72,000 annually to the state’s parties.

Since the rise in special-interest groups, though, the parties’ contributions have become less important, said Jeff Brindle, executive director of ELEC.

“The data clearly shows the trend line in party spending is down,” he said, noting that the total spent in 2003 would dwarf last year’s amount even further if it were adjusted for inflation.

Similarly, the total spent by the state Democratic and Republican committees and those parties’ leadership committees in each house of the Legislature, known collectively as the Big Six Committees, in 2015 was at its lowest level for a statewide election year since at least the mid-2000s, an ELEC analysis issued earlier this month found. The Big Six raised $8 million and spent $8.7 million, including cash reserves from the prior year, in 2015. In 2013, they spent $14.7 million and in 2007, $23.4 million. While they spent less last year in part because only the Assembly topped the ballot, the trend for these groups is generally the same as that of the county committees.

“This is a case of the tail increasingly wagging the dog,” said Bridle. “It used to be that state elections mostly were financed by party and candidate committees with direct support from special-interest groups. Since 2002, federal laws and court cases have created incentives for special-interest groups to spend more of their funds directly on elections.”

Last month, ELEC tallied the total cost of the 2015 legislative general election at more than $30 million, with more than a third of that coming from special-interest political action committees. The biggest spenders were General Majority PAC, a Democratic super PAC that spent almost $5.9 million, and Garden State Forward, a super PAC funded by the state’s largest teachers union and others, which spent almost $4 million and most of that amount was given to General Majority PAC. The Democrats picked up four seats in districts with super PAC spending, although they failed to unseat a Republican in the 2nd District, which includes Atlantic City, where independent groups spent more than $2 million.

Said Brindle, “Independent special-interest committees played a bigger role than ever in this year’s election. Their involvement had a dramatic impact.”

He is pushing for legislative changes to state election financing laws to help blunt the influence of independent special-interest groups, which are less accountable and less transparent than the party committees. These include making independent groups abide by the same disclosure rules as parties and candidates, reforming pay-to-play laws to allow parties to accept larger contractor contributions, and adjusting general contribution limits to offset inflation and boost party reserves.

The ELEC data for county party committees shows three Democratic groups — in Burlington, Gloucester and Hudson counties — and the Republicans in Hunterdon and Monmouth counties in the red at the end of the year. On the other hand, the Burlington Republican party had nearly $800,000 in reserve, while the wealthiest Democratic committee was in Passaic County, with almost $340,000.

Democratic committees outspent their rivals in all but six counties last year, backing not only legislative candidates, but also those running for county and local races, as well as the state parties and federal candidates. They also ended the year with a greater net worth than the Republican committees in 13 counties.