As Bostonians begin casting their early ballots for mayor, campaigning has kicked into a new gear — courtesy of deep-pocketed interests trying to make a last-minute mark on the race.
In just the past two weeks, outside special interest groups have poured more than a million dollars into the race, funding a barrage of television and radio ads according to the latest state campaign finance data. Hundreds of thousands of dollars has also gone to fund mailers and voter outreach.
Since Sunday, groups supporting Annissa Essaibi George have dropped more than $317,000 on ads supporting her and attacking Michelle Wu, just a slice of the more than $1.15 million in outside money spent on behalf of the at-large city councilor from Dorchester. Other groups have spent over $1.2 million in support of Wu, with nearly half of that coming in the last two weeks. Polls have continued to show Wu ahead by as much as 30-plus percentage points.
More last-minute financial disclosures and advertising are likely before Tuesday’s election, due in part to a 2010 Supreme Court decision that opened the floodgates to outside fund-raising and has transformed campaigning across the nation. Such spending is done by groups independent of the candidate or their campaign, and can’t be coordinated with their efforts.
In an advertising market as expensive as Boston’s, it’s made the money from those groups all the more important — and corrosive, said Maurice Cunningham, a retired professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston who studies campaign finance.
“This society has tipped so far from a democracy into an oligarchy that it’s almost immeasurable,” he said.
The Boston Turnout Project PAC, which is supporting Wu, has spent more than $800,000 alone this cycle on mailers, ads, and other campaigning. This week, the group — which has drawn much of its funding from environmental groups — dropped yet another $100,000 on one more ad touting her policies that’s set to run through Election Day.
Wu has also been supported by smaller contributions from unions like the Environmental League of Massachusetts PAC and 1199 SEIU, the health care workers union.
Two super PAC groups supporting Essaibi George — the different, but similarly named Bostonians for Real Progress and Real Progress Boston — have also brought in hundreds of thousands of dollars, largely from business interests like developers and contractors, and particularly invested donors such as New Balance CEO Jim Davis, who pitched in $495,000 earlier in the cycle.
Real Progress Boston, led by former police commissioner William Gross, reported spending $317,000 on radio, television, and newspaper ads just this week. Among the last-minute donors: $50,000 from automotive dealer Herb Chambers, $25,000 from real-estate investor Oleg Uritsky, and $250,000 from the construction firm J. Derenzo, which in 2017 had to pay the state a $150,000 fine for previous campaign finance violations.
While the outside cash infusion has factored significantly in the race, it’s far less — at least so far — than the eye-popping $3.8 million that defined the last open mayor’s race in 2013, when Martin J. Walsh beat rival John R. Connolly with deep reserves of union support.
The Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling in 2010 largely lifted limits on how much those groups could raise, triggering an avalanche across the country of spending by big interest groups.
The trend is clear in Boston. In 2009′s mayoral race, outside spending constituted just $8,700. In 2013, groups funneled in $2.5 million for Walsh alone. Connolly, who lost narrowly, saw outside groups spend about half that in support.
Neither Walsh, the heavily favored incumbent, nor challenger Tito Jackson had independent expenditure reports of outside spending filed on their behalf in 2017′s election, according to data from the state’s Office of Campaign and Political Finance. Walsh won handily.
Outside spending — in addition to indirectly bolstering a candidate’s campaigning — has other benefits, insulating candidates from scrutiny and accountability, said Jeffrey M. Berry, a political science professor at Tufts University.
Especially in the waning days before an election, the funds outside groups raise and use is “money spent by people the candidates can say they have nothing to do with,” he said. “In the last week, where charges can fly back and forth, candidates can step back and say, ‘I didn’t say that.’. . . It’s a good cop, bad cop routine.”
Some politicians — including Essaibi George — have called for those outside spending groups to stay out of their races, even if they have no ability to ensure those groups will heed their requests.
Individual giving has remained a significant part of political electioneering — contributions that Wu and Essaibi George received directly from individual donors eclipse what outside groups have spent on their behalf. Wu, as of Wednesday, had raised at least $1.94 million, with Essaibi George trailing closely with nearly $1.84 million.
But the impact of an individual donor, capped by a $1,000 yearly limit imposed by the state, pales in comparison to the funds that have fueled super PAC spending in the last weeks of the election.
The full total of spending and fund-raising won’t be clear until after Nov. 2, when campaigns and spending groups finish disclosing their remaining contributions and expenditures. But those numbers are certain to grow.
“The giver might be a surprise,” said Cunningham. “The giving is not.”