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for people who care about the West

The shadow following Western political races

Nevada and Arizona attract the most “dark money” this election.


After three decades, Senate Democratic Minority Leader Harry Reid is retiring, leaving a coveted Senate seat open in Nevada, one of the West’s battleground states. It’s a pivotal race: Should Republican Joe Heck be elected, he would strengthen the GOP’s Senate majority and bring a recently blue Nevada back into the Republican fold. If Democratic contender Christine Cortez Masto wins, she would be the first Latina ever elected to the Senate. The contest is also a close one. Cortez Masto has been trailing only slightly behind Heck, according to polls by the New York Times and FiveThirtyEight, a political blog that tracks and weighs national rankings. By mid-September, nearly $4 million of so-called “dark money” contributions —which flow through a loophole-ridden system that allows tax-exempt nonprofits and super PACs to influence politics without disclosing the identities of their donors — had poured into the race.

Nationwide, such anonymous campaign contributions are on the rise. In 2012, more than $308 million in dark money was paid out, compared to $102.4 million in 2008. Nearly 60 percent of the money donated to the top 10 Senate races in 2014 was dark, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks dark money. This September, anonymous spending is 10 times higher than it was at the same point in 2012.

That’s becoming more common in the West’s battleground states: Nevada, Colorado and increasingly purple Arizona, which has long been a conservative stronghold. Nevada’s District 3 House race, between Republican Danny Tarkanian and Democrat Jacky Rosen, has attracted more than $1.8 million in anonymous funding, for example. The race for Arizona’s Senate seat, between Republican incumbent John McCain and Democratic House Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, has received more than $1.5 million, and Colorado’s Senate race has brought in nearly $120,000. And these contests are just a sampling of Western elections that are attracting dark money. On the national scale, candidates in the West and their respective races are sprinkled among the top for garnering the most shadow funds.

To explore our data, hover over states, candidates or races for more details. 

Nevada and Arizona's Senate races stand out not only in the West but also on a national scale. For both states, this election season is crucial: Since 2012, Democrats have held sway in Nevada and Republicans are vying for more influence in the important battleground state; Arizona, while securely red historically, may be trending more purple this year. 

How dark money is spent

Republicans have spent more dark money on Western candidates or to influence the region's races. In total, $19,219,789 in shadow funds were spent in favor of Republican candidates, compared to $11,434,161 for Democrats. Both parties used dark money primarily to attack their opponents, but backers of the Republican Party spent far more to promote its own candidates and issues than shadow funders of the Democratic party did: $9,244,479 to $2,685,392. 

Who's attracting the most dark money?

The graphic represents the total dark money spent for and against the candidate. In the cases of Ann Kirkpatrick, D-Ariz., Danny Tarkanian, R-NV, and other candidates, that money was spent entirely against them. For more details on each candidate, hover over each column. 

Note: Michele Fiore, Republican member of Nevada's State Assembly, was defeated in the Republican Primary by opponent Danny Tarkanian. Fiore, as High Country News has reported, has ties to the Sagebrush Rebellion and participated in negotiations with armed occupiers at Malheur Wildlife Refuge earlier this year. 

Data source for all of the above visualizations came from the Center for Responsive Politics, the Federal Elections Commission. The figures for the Heck-Cortez Masto race were averaged from national polls, as analyzed by FiveThirtyEight and the New York Times. 

Image: In July 2014 a group called Rolling Rebellion for Real Democracy rallied for campaign finance reform in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. By Joe Brusky/ CC Flickr 

Paige Blankenbuehler is an editorial fellow at High Country News. She tweets