New York has seen more than its share of expensive elections. But this year's Republican House primaries have taken the state's big-money politics to a level not seen before.
There's the scuffle on Long Island's moneyed eastern half, which features a self-funding millionaire, two personal super PACs, and another pair of outside groups all battling in a two-man Republican primary.
Farther north, the best-known GOP super PAC has spent hundreds of thousands slamming a GOP candidate it once indirectly aided a few elections back.
And same-sex marriage has become the major point of contention (and spending) between outside groups in another Republican race.
Any single one of these primary races has attracted far more outside spending than all of the state's top House primaries in 2012 combined. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, outside groups this cycle have spent more than $1.75 million in the 1st District, where Republicans Lee Zeldin and George Demos are competing for the nomination; nearly $1.2 million in the 21st District, where repeat candidate Matt Doheny is under attack from the American Crossroads super PAC; and nearly $900,000 in the 22nd District, where Rep. Richard Hanna is one of the few GOP congressmen who back same-sex marriage.
In 2012, New York's most expensive primaries cost outside groups about $120,000 each in a pair of New York City districts.
Of all these candidates, former Securities and Exchange Commission prosecutor Demos has the most money behind him. But most of it has come from wealthy — and liberal — family members, leading to an avalanche of bad press. Demos loaned his campaign $2 million of his own money, which came largely from marrying into the family of Angelo Tsakopoulos, a California real-estate developer and longtime business partner of Paul Pelosi, husband of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.
That connection led Zeldin and his outside allies — the American Action Network and the U.S. Jobs Council — to run TV ads linking Demos to California Democrats, frequently calling him a "Pelosi Republican." The chorus only grew louder as Demos got more help. Tsakopoulos funded Americans for Common Sense, a super PAC that has spent more than $850,000 backing Demos, while the liberal group Patriot Majority USA has attacked Zeldin as part of its program of meddling in GOP primaries this year.
Zeldin called Patriot Majority's involvement "totally inappropriate" and said Democrats want him to lose the primary because he is the stronger candidate in the general election against Democratic Rep. Tim Bishop, who barely won in 2010 and 2012. No matter what, Zeldin will be on the ballot in the fall on the Conservative Party line; if Demos wins the Republican nomination, the two candidates will split anti-Bishop votes and likely allow the incumbent to win easily. Zeldin also criticized Patriot Majority's attempts to cast him as a tea-party extremist, despite his support from moderate establishment Republicans.
"It's hypocrisy that they're even involved, and especially that they're using this particular messaging," Zeldin said.
"We expect that these candidates will howl and make up all kinds of silly excuses when we talk about them," Patriot Majority USA President Craig Varoga said in an email.
American Action Network communications director Dan Conston said that liberals' spending against Zeldin was actually a good sign for the campaign, indicating that he's the one who scares Democrats the most in a general election. But Conston said the sheer size of the funds backing Demos made his group feel "it was necessary to get involved and to help equalize out the spending and ensure that Zeldin gets through the primary."
New York City-based hedge-fund manager Robert Mercer also stepped in to back Zeldin, donating $200,000 to the U.S. Jobs Council, a super PAC founded earlier this year that has focused solely on this race. The group has continued the "Pelosi Republican" refrain, attempting to turn Demos's financial advantage against him.
"If it's doing well, we want to pound them on that issue," said Saul Anuzis, a former chairman of the Michigan Republican Party who founded the group.
Anuzis added that this kind of singularly focused super PAC, like the ones that formed to back President Obama and Mitt Romney in 2012, is becoming more and more common in smaller campaigns.
Zeldin isn't the only candidate howling about outside groups getting involved in races where they aren't welcome. In the 21st District, American Crossroads spent more than $750,000 running negative TV ads against Doheny, the only time this cycle the group has gone negative against a fellow Republican. Crossroads has run three TV ads so far criticizing Doheny for two separate charges of boating while intoxicated in 2004 and for failing to pay rent for a New York City apartment. Doheny faces establishment favorite Elise Stefanik, a 29-year-old former Bush White House aide.
Doheny has run two times before: In 2011, as Doheny was ramping up his second campaign against Democratic Rep. Bill Owens, Crossroads' nonprofit arm ran TV ads weakening the incumbent. The name recognition he had from his previous campaigns might have been the biggest factor in the primary — until Crossroads started pouring money on his head.
Doheny spokesman David Catalfamo said the ads only underscore Doheny's argument that he's the true local, while Stefanik is a Washington insider. "Neither candidate would be bad for the Republican brand," Catalfamo said. "Why are they getting involved? Because she's part of [the] Washington crowd and they want her to be their congressperson."
Catalfamo added that he expects a backlash among Crossroads donors who don't want their money spent against a Republican. "People are donating to them thinking they're taking down the president," he said.
New York 2014, a super PAC headed by 2006 gubernatorial candidate John Faso, has also supported Stefanik on the theory that she'd be stronger in this fall's general election. The group has spent nearly $375,000 supporting Stefanik, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
"Not taking anything away from [Doheny], but we felt that she's a stronger general election candidate," Faso said.
While the disputes in the 1st and 21st districts are between candidates with few policy differences, the 22nd District is a rare case in which same-sex marriage is the pivotal issue between two Republicans. American Unity PAC, which backs Republicans who support same-sex marriage, has spent more than $650,000 hammering Hanna's opponent, Assemblywoman Claudia Tenney. The less well-funded National Organization for Marriage has spent slightly more than $20,000 supporting the more socially conservative Tenney.
The district is roughly evenly split between Republicans and Democrats, but Hanna does not face a Democratic challenger — only a primary challenge from Tenney. Hanna has a significant financial advantage, spending more than five times as much as Tenney as of early June, plus hundreds of thousands of dollars spent by American Unity, Patriot Prosperity PAC, and the Republican Mainstreet Partnership.
That financial advantage isn't lost on the National Organization for Marriage. Spokesman Brian Brown said the group has sent mail ads saying that Hanna is "basically a liar" because he has promoted himself as a true conservative while garnering support for taking a liberal position on same-sex marriage.
"He's now got Paul Singer and American Unity PAC doing dirty work promoting him as a conservative," Brown said, "and not mentioning he supports gay marriage, and that's the only reason American Unity is running these ads."
American Unity officials did not respond to a request for comment.