Groups Fighting Big Money Drew Big Money Into South Dakota

Two reform-minded PACs forced the two parties to pay more attention to the open-seat race.

Two groups focused on campaign finance reform unexpectedly helped put South Dakota on the Senate electoral map this fall. With their injections of more than $1 million each into the race for the seat being vacated by Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson, Every Voice Action and Mayday PAC forced the real big-money players to get more involved.

Every Voice began running ads in mid-September attacking the Republican nominee, former Gov. Mike Rounds, over an EB-5 visa controversy, while Mayday went on air in early October in support of Democrat Rick Weiland. Not long after, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and the National Republican Senatorial Committee both began spending on a contest that started to look increasingly competitive.

"I think they have changed the face of the race because they shined a light on a weakness in Mike Rounds's campaign that hadn't been exploited up until they came into the state," Patrick Davis, a GOP political consultant and former executive director of the South Dakota Republican Party, said of the two reform-minded groups. "They echoed and enhanced what Rick Weiland was saying about the EB-5 issue and Mike Rounds and have raised it to a point where it's all everybody is talking about in the state."

The Rounds campaign, which was otherwise sailing to victory in November, acknowledges that it had to adjust its strategy after Mayday and Every Voice intervened in the final stretch of the race.

"I think a sharper edge has been required because we were being outspent "¦ and so we had to push back with some intensity, and we've done that successfully," Rounds campaign manager Rob Skjonsberg said. "I think people have seen right through these attack ads."

It's not often that groups primarily concerned about money in politics shake up a major race in this way, although their impact appears to have been short-lived. A new NBC News/Marist College poll shows Rounds leading Weiland by 14 points, while a Sioux Falls Argus Leader/KELO-TV survey finds Rounds up by 9 points with Election Day now just one week away. Still, Mayday announced Monday that it will spend another $1 million on the race.

Earlier this month, Mayday also poured serious money into another previously off-the-radar race in Michigan's 6th Congressional District, where Rep. Fred Upton is seeking a 15th term. The group's $1.5 million investment targeting the House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman over connections to "special interests" hasn't done much to alter the course of the election, but it still concerned Upton enough that he personally reached out to some of the group's donors that hail from Silicon Valley.

Mayday and Every Voice have also been involved in more contested races this year, but with less of an effect. Mayday has spent money in support of independent Greg Orman in the Kansas Senate campaign and Democratic candidates in two toss-up House races—Iowa's 3rd District and New Hampshire's 1st. For its part, Every Voice has also worked to defeat Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in Kentucky. But in races like these, where multiple groups are spending millions of dollars, it's much tougher to break through and have a discernable impact.

Still, with the South Dakota and Michigan races, Mayday and Every Voice have shown that they have the ability to make some noise in a campaign. Mayday has even raised $10.3 million so far this year—no paltry sum for the "super PAC to end all super PACs." Now the question becomes whether they can build on this heading into the 2016 elections. Appearing on MSNBC's Up With Steve Kornacki on Sunday, Mayday cofounder and Harvard Law School professor Lawrence Lessig said that in the short term, the group is satisfied with simply raising the profile of the issue of money in politics.

"We're making a big gamble that we can demonstrate something by the way people change their votes or move their votes," Lessig said. "What we need to do is not necessarily win 100 percent of the votes or even win 50 percent of the votes. What we need to do is to demonstrate a significant portion of voters care enough about this so that it becomes important for people to actually want to make this an issue that they talk about. Not everybody—not even 50 percent of the candidates—but we need enough to make it so that we can win a Congress committed to fundamental reform."

Every Voice Action's president, David Donnelly, said that this year has represented "an incredible maturation of our political work" and that the impact the group has had in states like South Dakota will help propel it into the next campaign, regardless of the outcome of the November elections.

"But I think certainly with more wins it's easier to find the resources and engage many more people in taking on these fights," he added.