Tens of millions spent on NJ 2020 congressional races. Who gave? Who benefited?

The 2nd District contest between Rep. Jeff Van Drew and Amy Kennedy was the most expensive, lapping up more than $21 million

More than $83 million was spent by candidates and political committees on New Jersey’s 13 congressional races in the 2020 general election, with half of that spent on just two close contests.

Of the 12 House races and one Senate race, the most expensive contest was in the southernmost 2nd District, which encompasses all or part of eight counties. Still, the $21.3 million spent by Republican Rep. Jeff Van Drew and Democratic challenger Amy Kennedy and by more than a dozen independent groups backing one or the other does not even rank among the 10 most expensive congressional races in the nation.

Close behind the 2nd District in spending came the nail-biting race in the 7th District, which stretches from Hunterdon County into Union County. Candidates and committees there spent $19.5 million, an analysis of OpenSecrets data by NJ Spotlight News found. Democratic Rep. Tom Malinowski held on to his seat, beating Republican state Senate leader Tom Kean by less than 1% of votes cast. Malinowski outspent Kean by about 2-to-1, but Kean got more of a boost from SuperPACs and independent committees, including two set up specifically to support his candidacy.

‘Dark money’ and negative ads

About a third of the total $83.3 million spent on the state’s congressional contests came from outside groups, at least some of which are considered “dark money” organizations that do not report their contributors. Of the $26.9 million in expenditures by these groups, about 90% was on negative ads and mailers designed to get a voter to not support a candidate, with only $1 in $10 spent promoting an individual. More than 80% of that money came from four major party committees: The House Majority PAC, which supports Democrats, topped all with an outlay of $8.5 million; the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) and Congressional Leadership Fund, which supports Republicans, each spent more than $4 million.

The House Majority PAC, aligned with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), spent $5.3 million in vain trying to unseat Van Drew, who had won in the 2nd District in 2018 as a Democrat and switched to the GOP last December after refusing to vote to impeach President Donald Trump. Kennedy raised close to $5 million and benefited from another $7 million spent by outside groups either backing her or campaigning against Van Drew. The nearly $12 million spent by Kennedy, or on her behalf, was the most for any New Jersey congressional candidate, the analysis found. Kennedy lost by close to 6 percentage points, or about 22,000 votes. That race was big on both major parties’ radars, with almost $6 of every $10 spent there coming from one of the party committees or a “dark money” group.

The other race that drew significant outside spending was in the 7th district, where a more than $3 million money lead for Malinowski — a total of $11.3 million in candidate and independent spending for the Democrat — may have helped to win the day. The NRCC and Congressional Leadership Fund spent a combined $4.3 million, virtually all on negative ads against Malinowski, including a provocative one that falsely claimed “Malinowski chose sex offenders over your family.” This was the last race in the state to be decided, with Kean conceding on the eve of the counties’ certification of results. Malinowski, a freshman, won by 0.8% of the vote count, or about 5,000 votes.

More than double the GOP total

Since New Jersey is a blue state with 10 of 12 House seats and both Senate seats held by Democrats, it is not surprising that about 72% of all the money spent in the 2020 race was either by or in support of Democratic candidates — nearly $60 million. That was almost twice the close-to $24 million spent to benefit Republicans. Overall, House candidates raised close to $54 million, about 7% more for this election than in 2018. About $45 million of that was in the five closest races — four flipped by Democrats in 2018 plus the northwestern 5th District won by Josh Gottheimer, also a Democrat, in 2016 — where candidates raised 12% more than two years ago.

But the Senate race was far less expensive than in 2018, when Republican Bob Hugin spent $36 million of his own money in losing to Democratic incumbent Bob Menendez. This year, incumbent Democrat Cory Booker raised more than $15 million for his Senate reelection bid and spent about two-thirds of that, while his Republican opponent Rikin “Rik” Mehta raised and spent less than $600,000.

Nationwide, however, spending on the election ballooned to what OpenSecrets termed the “mind-blowing figure” of $14 billion. That was roughly twice what was spent on the 2016 presidential election. Contributing in part to that spending was a crowded Democratic primary field that included Booker for a time. President-elect Joe Biden, a Democrat, became the first presidential candidate to raise more than $1 billion. Independent spending also doubled to a record high of $3.2 billion.

To put the total spent in New Jersey in perspective, $83.3 million is enough to cover the tuition and fees for about 5,950 New Jersey students at Rutgers University this year. But it is also less than the amount spent by a half dozen U.S. Senate candidates this year, with unsuccessful South Carolina Democratic challenger Jaime Harrison having spent almost $132 million, according to the Federal Election Commission. Harrison lost to Republican incumbent Lindsey Graham, who spent $102 million. The two candidates spent a combined $232 million. With nearly $50 million in independent spending, the total spent for that single seat — that pays its holder $174,000 a year — was close to $282 million.