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Watchdog warns of undue influence on both sides of Senate race

Tom Fontaine
| Sunday, Oct. 2, 2016, 10:30 p.m.
Chester County Democrat Katie McGinty (left) is challenging Republican incumbent Pat Toomey for a U.S. Senate seat.
Tribune-Review
Chester County Democrat Katie McGinty (left) is challenging Republican incumbent Pat Toomey for a U.S. Senate seat.

A tidal wave of outside money has washed into Pennsylvania's hotly contested U.S. Senate race, more than any other Senate race in the country, according to a nonprofit that tracks campaign spending.

The money threatens to give wealthy donors undue influence over Pennsylvania's next senator, a watchdog said.

“When politicians get in office, they know who got them there. It's not that major donors buy policies or politicians, but when they call, they get their calls answered by the senators. That's not something regular constituents get,” said Robert Maguire, political nonprofit investigator at Washington, D.C.'s Center for Responsive Politics.

The outside groups — political action committees, super PACs and nonprofit 501(c) groups — spent at least $57.5 million on Pennsylvania's Senate race between U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Lehigh Valley, and Democrat Katie McGinty of Chester County, a Center for Responsive Politics database showed through Thursday.

Additionally, Toomey's campaign had spent $15.4 million and McGinty's $4.3 million through June 30, records show. The deadline to file campaign finance reports for the year's third quarter, which ended Friday, is Oct. 15.

Outside groups spent $47.8 million in Ohio, the second-highest total for a Senate race. Nationally, the groups spent a combined $256.6 million, records showed.

Outside spending has exploded since 2010, when groups such as Citizens United won court decisions allowing corporations, unions and individuals to make unlimited contributions to super PACs as long as the groups don't deal directly with candidates or political parties. The Citizens United decision also loosened restrictions on the 501(c), known as a social welfare organization, which can accept unlimited contributions but don't have to identify donors.

McGinty has railed against the Citizens United decision during her campaign and vowed to work to overturn it if elected — yet, liberal outside groups had spent $38.9 million on Pennsylvania's race, compared to $18.6 million by conservative ones, records showed.

“Citizens United is a threat to our democracy,” McGinty wrote in an April questionnaire for the group End Citizens United, a political action committee that has spent $1.1 million on the Senate race and donated $5,000 to McGinty directly, records showed.

On Friday, McGinty campaign spokesman Sean Coit said, “Pat Toomey is the reason there is so much outside spending flooding everyone's TV screens. … He supports allowing outside groups to spend as much money as they want, anonymously, every campaign season. Katie thinks we should get all of this anonymous, outside money out of politics.”

Toomey opposes overturning the Citizens United decision because he believes it would restrict free speech, but he does support more transparent disclosure requirements.

“Liberal special interests are so desperate to elect Katie McGinty that they're spending record amounts in Pennsylvania, but it won't work. Pennsylvania families can see clear as day that she has proposed over $3,000 per household in higher middle-class taxes, and no amount of false attack ads will change her terrible policy agenda,” Toomey campaign spokesman Ted Kwong said regarding the explosion in outside spending.

Maguire said Democrats find themselves in a “tough spot” on the issue.

“They are, on one hand, railing against this (Citizens United) decision, and, on the other hand, they are beneficiaries of it. To some extent, they don't have a choice. It's not like they can tell the outside groups to stop running ads,” Maguire said.

Toomey and outside groups have accused McGinty of being too cozy with special interests, but campaign finance records show ties between well-heeled donors and Toomey.

From 2005 to 2009, between Toomey's stints in Congress and the Senate, he served as president of the Washington, D.C.-based conservative nonprofit Club for Growth.

Records show Club for Growth's super PAC spent $627,458 on this year's Senate race, its 501(c) spent $508,464 and its PAC spent $18,841.

Among conservative outside groups, Freedom Partners Action Fund has spent the most money in the Senate race at $6.7 million, records show. The conservative Senate Leadership Fund's spending in Pennsylvania isn't reflected in the Center for Responsive Politics' database, but the fund said last week that it launched a $6.5 million television advertising campaign in Pennsylvania.

New York's Paul Singer, the billionaire president of the hedge fund Elliott Management, provided a combined $3 million to the two conservative funds.

Netonis Wybensinger, a legislative director in Toomey's House office who later served as staff director of a Senate Banking subcommittee that Toomey chaired for about a year ending in April 2014, lobbied on behalf of Singer's Elliott Management after leaving the Banking subcommittee, records show. She did not return a message seeking comment.

“Pat Toomey's former employees make big money as lobbyists thanks to their access to him, and in return for that access, their special-interest allies spend millions to keep Pat Toomey in office,” Coit said.

Kwong said, “Katie McGinty should take a look in the mirror,” alluding to reports throughout the campaign that she landed work with private companies she regulated while in government jobs.

While many of Toomey's top donors work in the financial services sector, Kwong said Toomey “has led the fight against bailouts for big banks and giant taxpayer-funded corporate handouts.”

Coit described Toomey's revolving-door attack ads on McGinty, including ones funded by the Senate Leadership Fund, as the “height of hypocrisy.”

Tom Fontaine is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7847 or tfontaine@tribweb.com.

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