The immense magnitude of campaign spending in presidential races is now well-documented. But that volume of money has recently been emerging on the local level, in cities across the U.S., and even during the primary stages. June’s New York mayoral primary was the most expensive ever, with most of the cash coming from super PACs, allowed by law since 2010 to independently fund candidates through unlimited donations, separate from the candidate’s official campaign financing.
According to The Gothamist’s analysis on the latest Campaign Finance Board data, super PACs spent a total of $36 million on the New York City primary, which included money directed to mayoral and city council candidates. That’s $23 million more than in 2013, the last time the city held a similar open primary.
The majority of that money went to the eventual winner in the Democratic mayoral primary, Eric Adams, who took in $7.7 million from super PACs. (The Strong Leadership Super PAC, formed by a school-choice advocate, supplied him with $6.3 million.) Kathryn Garcia, who lost to Adams by only 0.8% in the final ranked-choice vote tally, received a small fraction of super PAC dollars. Her biggest donor, New Generation of Leadership PAC, spent $235,000 on her campaign.
While some have commented that more super PAC cash for Garcia’s campaign would have given her a winning boost, she did manage to get incredibly close to her opponent with a comparatively tiny proportion of his fundraising. Meanwhile mayoral candidates Ray McGuire and Shaun Donovan—who received $5.7 and $6.5 million, respectively, from super PACs—didn’t come close.
Super PACs also pushed $4.8 million into New City’s city council races. This pouring-in of big money has been seen around the country: Nashville’s 2015 mayoral race, which cost $17 million, was the most expensive ever; recent mayoral races in smaller cities, including Richmond, Virginia, and Syracuse, New York, also set records. Spending for Philadelphia’s record-breaking 2015 election broke down to $122 per voter. Already, PACs are pumping hundreds of thousands of dollars into its 2023 race.
The 2020 presidential election alone cost more than all the races in the entire 2016 election. The outrageous sums have led organizations to call for urgent campaign finance reform, from the national level down to the local.