By Chip Brownlee
Alabama Political Reporter
A leading Democratic super PAC pumped out millions of dollars to finance TV, radio and digital advertising and get-out-the-vote operations as part of an effort to swing the U.S. Senate race for Democrat Doug Jones.
The Democratic Senate Majority PAC, a group working to elect a Democratic majority in the Senate, spent upward of $6 million in the Alabama Senate race, spokesman Chris Hayden told the Alabama Political Reporter.
SMPAC became the second-biggest spender in the Senate race and was also the main backer of another PAC, Highway 31 — a group that in the final weeks of the race blanketed social media in digital advertisements opposing Republican Roy Moore and supporting Jones.
APR has not independently confirmed SMPAC’s or Highway 31’s expenditures or contributions because their campaign finance reports are not expected to be filed until January.
The group appears to have outspent Moore’s campaign by more than $1.5 million. Jones’ Senate campaign — which would have operated independently from SMPAC because of federal regulations that prohibit coordination between PACs and candidates’ campaigns — spent upward of $9 million on the race, while Moore’s camp dolled out $4.5 million.
Jones became the first Democrat elected to the U.S. Senate since Sen. Richard Shelby, then a Democrat, was re-elected to the Senate in 1992. Two years later, he switched parties. Alabama hasn’t had a Democratic senator since Sen. Howell Heflin chose not to run for re-election in 1996. In the final weeks leading up to the election, Jones’ campaign was able to organize a unique coalition of black voters, women and millennial voters who turned out in near-record numbers for a special election.
“We were helping to frame the race with our TV and radio ads, really investing in this race and making sure that we were supplementing the Jones campaign,” Hayden said. “They did a great job with this as well. It was really important.”
The group worked with Alabama resident and Highway 31 spokesman Adam Muhlendorf in running the PAC operation leading up to the election. Highway 31 spent millions on digital advertising that focused largely on the sexual assault allegations levied against Moore in November.
“We really wanted this to be Alabama first. The face of this was Adam Muhlendorf, an Alabama voter and political consultant,” Hayden said. “We wanted to obviously provide resources and infrastructure but we really wanted to work in partnership with those local groups and that’s what we did. I think that’s why we were so successful.”
SMPAC spent $2 million on television and radio advertising, another $2 million on an African-American turnout operation in partnership with BlackPAC, $1.5 million on digital advertising in partnership with another Democratic PAC, Priorities USA, and $700,000 on direct mail, Hayden said. The remainder, Hayden said, was spent on polling and other administrative expenses.
“Majority PAC’s priority is obviously to elect Democrats to the Senate, and we saw a great opportunity,” Hayden said. “We began formulating this plan in October, especially the turnout operation, which was obviously several weeks before The Washington Post story on Roy Moore came out.”
Hayden said the group was going to go through with its turnout operation plans — which involved knocking on 500,000 doors —regardless of how the final weeks of the campaign shaped out. They made decisions about TV and radio advertising as the campaign progressed through the final weeks.
“This was something that we were going to invest in before the seismic events of The Washington Post story came out,” Hayden said.
Highway 31 faced criticism for having its finances and backers shrouded in an air of mystery as the group financed controversial ads on social media, including one that told voters their vote would be public record and shared with members of the community. The ad, which was later pulled, prompted Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill to issue a statement saying the ad was targeting voters with incorrect an inaccurate information intent on confusing voters. Merrill’s office also worked with Google to remove the ad.
Because of federal campaign finance rules, the group didn’t have to release their contributors or other financial data during the election cycle.
“We had a different interpretation of what that was,” Hayden said. “What it said was that your vote would be public, as in whether or not you voted would be public. That’s the way we interpreted it. The secretary of state had a different interpretation of that. That was obviously a difference of opinion.
Jones on Wednesday launched his Senate website and is expected to be certified as the winner of the special election Thursday during a meeting of the State Canvassing Board. He will likely be seated as a Senator in January.
Moore has not yet conceded and has continued fundraising for an “election integrity” project. There is no legal requirement for Moore to concede, and his refusal will not prevent Jones from being seated next month.