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HARRISBURG — The total cost of the governor’s race in Pennsylvania topped $100 million in this last election cycle, a staggering amount that set a new spending record in the race to snag the state’s highest office.
More than half of that money was spent by the winner, Democratic Gov.-elect Josh Shapiro.
The steep spending puts on full display Pennsylvania’s distinction as having some of the most lax campaign finance laws in the country — ones that place no limits on how much money candidates can accept from deep-pocketed donors.
It also gives good government and other reform advocates pause, because it has the potential to raise the bar for competing in future races, entrenching incumbents and shutting out otherwise good candidates who lack a deep bench of donors.
“It should be a serious concern to every Pennsylvanian that the price of running for office continues to skyrocket,” said Charlie Gerow, one of nine candidates who competed for the GOP nomination for governor this year.
“It’s crazy how much money it costs just to lose an election,” added Gerow, a Republican political strategist who raised and spent just over a half million dollars and ended up trailing in votes behind most of his Republican rivals.
In all, Shapiro and the nine Republicans spent $100.2 million in both the primary and general election between the start of last year and the end of November, according to the latest campaign finance reports. That is more than double what it costs to run Pennsylvania’s Department of State, which oversees elections, for an entire year.
That total does not include another $12.5 million in “in-kind contributions,” spending on behalf of the candidates by third parties who pay for things like campaign mailings or catering for events.
The bulk of this year’s spending — $69.2 million — came from Shapiro’s campaign, which set its own record for the highest amount spent by a single gubernatorial candidate.
The last time there was a race to succeed an outgoing, two-term governor — as there was this year with Gov. Tom Wolf — was in 2010. In that election, the six candidates who competed in the primary and general elections spent just over $72 million altogether, campaign finance records show.
In 2014, the four Democrats and incumbent Republican Gov. Tom Corbett, who was trying for a second four-year term, spent a combined $82.8 million.
That escalating cost is what campaign finance reform expert Ian Vandewalker calls “a campaign finance arms race.”
Vandewalker, senior counsel with the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University’s School of Law, said expensive races shouldn’t be viewed as inherently bad for democracy. He noted that skyrocketing costs for political advertising in large media markets have significantly driven up the price of effective campaign messaging, which is critical to winning elections.
What is concerning, he said, is where the money is coming from, and in what amounts.
“Are they [candidates] relying on megadonors that the average person cannot compete with? And will those megadonors have influence on policy after the election?” he said.
A handful of megadonors, almost all of them from outside Pennsylvania, contributed heavily to this year’s governor’s race, which was closely watched nationally as a referendum on high-profile issues like abortion access and election rights.
Shapiro, for instance, received $1 million each from Karla Jurvetson, a philanthropist and a major Democratic contributor from Silicon Valley, and Bill Harris Jr., the one-time head of PayPal. He received another $2 million from physician Jennifer Duda of California’s Menlo Park and got $120,000 from relatives of Democratic megadonor George Soros.
State Sen. Doug Mastriano of Franklin County, who won the Republican primary but lost to Shapiro in last month’s general election, raised much less money than Shapiro. But he still received $1 million from Richard and Elizabeth Uihlein, supporters of former President Donald Trump and conservative megadonors from Illinois.
That’s not the only way wealthy donors influenced this year’s election for governor. Political action committees that receive millions of dollars in support from Montgomery County billionaire stock trader Jeff Yass, spent nearly $13 million to bolster former federal prosecutor Bill McSwain’s unsuccessful run for the GOP nomination for governor.
Such large-scale donations are permissible under Pennsylvania’s campaign finance laws, which have not been significantly updated in decades. Currently, candidates and political action committees (PACs) are allowed to accept donations of any size. There is also no explicit ban on using campaign funds for personal use.
Corporate donations are prohibited, but there is a loophole: top-level executives in a corporation can and do launch their own political action committees. Those PACs can then donate unlimited amounts to candidates. So can their lobbyists.
Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa (D., Allegheny) has for the last 12 years pushed legislation to strengthen campaign finance laws in the state. In every case, however, his bill has been met with silence. In fact, it has never once received even a committee hearing. Among other things, the measure would establish donation limits for the first time and impose more accountability for campaign spending.
Democrats said Costa plans to reintroduce the measure when the new, two-year legislative session begins next month. Less clear is whether it will gain any traction.
During the campaign, Shapiro said he would support more frequent and thorough reporting of campaign donations and expenditures. His campaign also said he would support limits on donations to candidates, but believes that alone would be ineffective unless there are also stricter restrictions on so-called “dark money” contributions from certain nonprofits, or “social welfare” organizations, that can accept unlimited amounts of money and do not have to disclose their donors.
Vandewalker, of the Brennan Institute, called donation limits and transparency “the bare minimum” when it comes to improving the campaign finance landscape.
Still, such changes would not affect wealthy candidates who have the ability to self-finance their run for office. Under both federal and state rules, such candidates can give unlimited amounts to their campaigns.
This year’s Republican gubernatorial primary featured one such candidate in Delaware County, GOP insider Dave White. White contributed $5 million of his own money to his run, about two-thirds of the $7.8 million he raised overall.
Still, his personal spending did little to whittle down the nine-person field of GOP contenders, and White ended up coming in fourth place.
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