Big-money donors play in quiet 2014 state election cycle

A small group of big-money donors is playing hard in the 2014 elections, even if none of the contests carry quite the same marquee names as just two years earlier.

Campaign finance data collected by the state show that more than $35 million has been given to candidates and campaign committees so far this year. Of that amount, more than $13 million has come from single donations of at least $10,000.

The amount of spending thus far is light by Indiana standards and reflects a relatively dormant election cycle. The top races on the ballot are for secretary of state, treasurer and auditor, a situation that occurs every 12 years.

Still, major donors have found outlets for their money.

Most of the money has gone to legislative races as House Republicans look to hold on to a supermajority they obtained in 2012 and Senate Republicans, who have long outnumbered Democrats, look to build on their 37-13 lead.

Northwest Indiana hotel tycoon Dean White has accounted for $1.3 million alone, including three donations of $250,000 each to Republican Gov. Mike Pence, the House Republican campaign committee and Republican House Speaker Brian Bosma. Pence isn't up for re-election until 2016 but has been flirting with the idea of a White House run.

House Democrats have benefited from a $250,000 donation from the Teamsters union and $175,000 from the Union of Painters and Allied Trades. Other major donations have been funneled from Wal-Mart fortune heiress Alice Walton and through conservative education groups to conservative candidates.

Candidates from both parties have often relied on a handful of large donors over the years, said Andy Downs, director of the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics at Indiana University Purdue University Fort Wayne.

Christian conservative activist Eric Miller collected $570,000 from northern Indiana RV executive Mahlon Miller in his failed run against former Gov. Mitch Daniels in 2004. Democrats, Down notes, have been able to historically rely on the Simon family and their fortune made in shopping malls, for major donations. In the same election, Bren Simon cut a single check for $1.3 million to Democrat Joe Andrew's campaign for governor. A few weeks later she was picked as his running mate.

Because Indiana law allows for unlimited contributions from individuals, it also allows for a certain level of transparency, Downs said. Voters can look up donations through a state database.

The spending so far hasn't translated into a flood of campaign ads.

The Center for Public Integrity found that Indiana candidates had spent $342,200 on advertising on Indiana broadcast networks through September. House Education Chairman Robert Behning, R-Indianapolis, spent the most of any candidate, $139,500, to fend off a union-backed challenger in the May primary.

The center, which claims to be nonpartisan, reviewed data about political advertising on national cable and broadcast television in all of the country's 210 media markets. The organization used research from Kantar Media/CMAG, which tracks political advertising and offers a widely accepted estimate of the money spent to air each spot.

The figures paint only a partial picture because they don't include money spent on ads on radio, online and direct mail, as well as television ads on local cable systems, or the cost of producing the messages.

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