McCain, Ward spending on Senate primary rivaled by outside groups

Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, had spent $6.2 million on his re-election campaign and reported more than $5 million in the bank this month, but is getting an additional boost from millions in spending by outside groups supporting his bid. (Photo by Katie Bieri/Cronkite News)

Political experts say that spending by outside groups can help level the playing field for challengers like GOP Senate hopeful Kelli Ward, who are typically at a fundraising disadvantage against the incumbents they are trying to unseat. (Photo by Gage Skidmore/Creative Commons)

WASHINGTON – Sen. John McCain has spent $6.2 million on his re-election bid and his lead challenger, Kelli Ward, has spent about $1.3 million as they prepare to square off in Tuesday’s Republican primary.

But the spending by the two campaigns has almost been matched by independent political action committees, which have spent almost $7.4 million for and against the two candidates so far, according to the most recent campaign filings with the Federal Election Commission.

That mirrors national trends, according to a report this week by the Wesleyan Media Project, that said just under half of Senate campaign ads this year have come from outside groups. The report looked only at spending on ads, but said that about $247 million has been spent on ads to influence Senate campaigns so far this year.

Timothy Werner, a University of Texas at Austin professor who researches campaign contributions, said there’s no question that funding by outside groups is on the rise.

One consequence of that spending is that it gives challengers like Ward a better shot than they would otherwise have against an incumbent like McCain, who has a natural advantage in fundraising.

“The consequences are that she can be at least marginally competitive with a long-term incumbent, because that outside spending makes up for the deficit she would otherwise face against an incumbent like McCain,” Werner said of the independent PAC funding.

But even in outside spending, McCain holds an advantage, according to the FEC reports. They spent just over $4 million in support of McCain and against Ward, while groups supporting Ward spent about $3.4 million for her and in opposition to him, the reports show.

One of the biggest pro-Ward funds is KelliPAC, an independent political action committee that spent over $720,000 in support of her challenge. Doug McKee said he founded KelliPAC because he thinks Ward is “a top-notch conservative, her constitutional values are better than McCain’s.”

Barbara Norrander, a political science professor at University of Arizona, said the fact that there’s “some outside money in support of Kelli Ward … is kind of surprising.”

Other groups supporting Ward included the National Association for Gun Rights PAC, Gun Owners of America, Restore American Freedom and Liberty, the Restore the Constitution Coalition and the Courageous Conservatives PAC.

Independent groups backing McCain included the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the USA Business Freedom PAC, Citizens for a Working America and a group called the Arizona Grassroots Action PAC.

Outside of the independent groups, however, McCain holds a sizeable lead over Ward in fundraising, spending and cash on hand.

His spending this year is only a fraction of the $23 million he spent in 2010 – but back then he was flush with cash from his 2008 presidential campaign and, experts say, he has not had to spend as much in his primary against Ward. And he is probably saving up for a general election run against Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, D-Flagstaff, the likely Democratic nominee.

“I believe he is saving money and planning to use it after the primary election,” said Fred Solop, a political science professor at Northern Arizona University.

“He doesn’t need to spend all of his money now because it’s not a very contested primary,” Solop said. “Once the primary is over, he’s going to take more of his money and focus on Ann Kirkpatrick in the general election.”

Norrander agreed, saying McCain’s campaign has calculated that it “probably doesn’t have to spend as much money” for the primary.

With more than $5 million on hand, McCain campaign spokeswoman Lorna Romero said in an email that their team is “well-positioned to win the primary and carry the momentum into the general.”

Kirkpatrick reported raising $5.9 million and having $2.3 million on hand as of Aug. 10, the most recent filing with the FEC.

– Cronkite News reporter Adam DeRose contributed to this report.