An initial Capital-Star review of campaign finance reports available as of midday Tuesday shows that candidates in both parties has raised at least $23.4 million for the coming campaign — a total will only increase in the coming months as war chests grow and outside groups step in.
“Those are big time numbers early in a cycle as we come into prime fundraising territory, and a signal of just how expensive this race will end up being,” Chris Borick, a political scientist and pollster at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, told the Capital-Star. “The records are going to fall.”
Functionally unopposed on the Democratic side, state Attorney General Josh Shapiro is entering 2022 with $13.4 million on-hand after setting an off-year fundraising record in 2021, according to his campaign.
Donations last year came from 35,000 individual contributors, ranging from $345,000 in donations of $50 or less to big bucks from trade and health care worker unions and a $1 million check from a California mega donor.
“The incredible and humbling support we’ve received proves that folks understand the stakes of this race — and Josh and our campaign will continue working hard every single day to earn Pennsylvanians’ votes and win in November,” Shapiro’s campaign manager, Dana Fritz, said in a statement last month.
The Montgomery County Democrat’s campaign entered 2021 with $2 million in reserved cash from earlier races, all of which has been spent over the past year as part of the kick off.
In the wide-open GOP primary to face Shapiro, primary voters are about to be bombarded with millions of dollars in ads backing GOP hopeful Bill McSwain.
McSwain, a former federal prosecutor, has done poorly in early polling. But last month, he secured a key and deep-pocketed endorsement from Commonwealth Partners Chamber of Entrepreneurs, a free-market advocacy group mostly funded by one donor.
Political groups associated with Commonwealth Partners already have at least $20 million in the bank. And the first round of spending — nearly $7 million on pro-McSwain TV ads — went out the door this week through an associated group, the Commonwealth Leaders Fund.
The multi-million dollar buy will run through at least April, veteran conservative activist Matt Brouillette, who plays a role in both groups, told the Capital-Star.
That spending will be buttressed by additional mail and digital ads, though Brouillette declined to elaborate on the planned totals for other mediums. Still, “we’ve got more if necessary,” Brouillette added.
Commonwealth Partners receives most of its money from suburban Philadelphia billionaire hedge fund manager Jeff Yass, who is among the biggest political spenders in the country.
He was a top donor to the Club for Growth, a national group that has backed conservative U.S. Senators such as Ted Cruz, of Texas, and Josh Hawley of Missouri, though Yass has tried to distance himself from their attempts to overturn the 2020 election results.
McSwain’s spokesperson, Rachel Tripp, told the Capital-Star in an email that the spending “is the kind of comprehensive, long-term presence that our GOP opponents just can’t compete with, and reflects the aggressive commitment that will help Bill defeat Josh Shapiro.”
Borick agreed. He compared the strategy to that of incumbent Gov. Tom Wolf, who tapped into his personal wealth to run a wave of ads in the 2014 Democratic primary and leapfrog over more notable state politicians. Facing a number of former elected officials, including Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman (R-Centre), and former U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta, of Hazelton, McSwain is in a similar position.
“How do you make [McSwain] a clear threat in this race? it’s by building that name recognition,” Borick said, “and you do by spending a lot of money.”
Other candidates, most of whom also interviewed for Commonwealth Partner’s endorsement, could have trouble surmounting the pro-McSwain advertising blitz. And for some, the heavy spending will create tension about if McSwain and his backers are trying to buy the primary.
“You have to wonder now who’s running for governor — Bill McSwain or Commonwealth Partners,” one GOP political operative involved in the governor’s campaign told the Capital-Star.
In an email, Tripp said that McSwain has “a lifelong reputation for integrity and honesty,” and that, ”unlike many career politicians, he will never allow outside influences to interfere with his protection and defense of law-abiding citizens.”
Asked about fundraising at a gubernatorial candidate forum held by the Blair County GOP last weekend, McSwain said that Commonwealth Partners was willing to spend $20 million on his behalf after the endorsement.
“If you have the best message, you’re going to have the most money,” McSwain said. “And I believe that I have the best message, and I definitely have the most money in this campaign.”
To be sure, some candidates individually out-raised his roughly $1.5 million, spread between two campaign accounts. Some $800,000 is left in the bank after subtracting spending over the past year of campaigning.
Dave White, a former Delaware County councilman and construction firm owner, has raised $3.35 million in the past year — most of it out of his own pocket. All told, he’s loaned his campaign $3 million of his own money, and indicated he’s willing to dig deeper into his pockets.
“I think you work harder when you put your own money into a race,” White said at the Blair County forum.
White has almost $2.5 million left heading into the primary season. Besides his own money, White has received $58,000 from GOP power player Bob Asher — $48,000 from Asher’s PAC, the PA Future Fund, and $10,000 from Asher directly.
Corman has raised $3 million between his two PACs for his run, and has $2.7 million left as campaign season kicks off.
“Unlike some in the Republican field, those aren’t dollars that I personally loaned to my campaign and will have to pay back — or are coming from an outside group that is spending it on my behalf,” Corman said in a statement this week.
Among his largest donations was $500,000 from Philadelphia landlord and charter school founder Micheal Karp, according to state campaign finance reports.
White and Corman have at least one donor in common — Paul Martino, a Bucks County venture capitalist who helped fund pro-school reopening candidates in the 2021 municipal elections. He gave $25,000 to White, and $50,000 to Corman.
Barletta raised $1.1 million between his exploratory and official campaign committee. The report, Barletta argued in a statement, “shows that ours is an undeniably vibrant campaign that will be well positioned for victory in November.”
His campaign has spent $660,000 on campaigning over the past year, leaving him with $243,000 in the bank at the start of the primary season.
Other campaign’s reports, including arch-conservative state Sen. Doug Mastriano (R-Franklin), were not yet available.
But Shapiro’s total fundraising haul alone was more than Corman, White, Barletta and McSwain combined. And the $13 million left in Shapiro’s campaign check book was more than double what was left in the four’s combined accounts.
Unlike federal campaigns, Pennsylvania law places no limits on political spending. Wolf is term-limited, leaving the governor’s mansion open for either party to win.
Whoever wins will play a key role in crafting public policy over the coming years, proposing and negotiating state spending with the Legislature, signing and vetoing bills, and directing the state bureaucracy, from the State Police to PennDOT.
For the 2018 election, candidates for governor spent approximately $62.3 million on the primary and general elections, not including outside spending. Pennsylvania Republican Party Chairperson Lawrence Tabas told PennLive last week that he expected the 2022 race’s price tag to cross $80 million.
But focusing too much on the financials might be a fool’s errand, another GOP hopeful, Guy Ciarrocchi, argued.
To “fight back against [Shapiro’s] mountain of money,” Ciarrocchi, the former head of the Chester County Chamber of Commerce, said, Republicans “should be focusing on who has the best message based on what voters are actually talking about and the right experience.”
He raised $300,000, according to his campaign finance report, and had $241,000 left as the primary heated up.
Speaking in Blair County, GOP hopeful John Ventre put it another way.
“I was told early on that to run as a Republican, the two questions are money and are you connected to get elected,” Ventre, a former UPS executive who raised just over $1,300, said. But “you could be passing up on a future [Ronald] Reagan or Donald Trump with that type of thinking.”