Dem. Rep. Sean Casten buys big media with big money

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Sean Casten speaking at Glen Ellyn Metra Station announcing $14.4 million in funding for the station on November 25, 2019.

Democrat Sean Casten spent $6.7 million in the 2018 congressional election to become the representative for Illinois’ Sixth Congressional District, a Chicago west-suburb district that saw the largest amount of money raised and spent in Illinois for a Congressional election. 

Since 2007, the Sixth District had retained support for its former Republican House Representative, Peter Roskam. However, the district swung left in 2018 and elected Casten, despite Roskam spending slightly more than Casten in the 2018 election cycle, totaling at $7 million. Casten won the election with 53.6 percent of the vote, followed by Roskam with 46.4 percent.

“[Sean’s election win] was an illustration of the blue wave,” said Nancy Shepherdson, a Democratic committeewoman for the Sixth District who helped in Casten’s campaign. “But it didn’t just happen. It required a lot of persuasion, especially because it was an off-year, and Democrats tend not to vote in the off-year for the congressional elections.”

Casten spent more than half of his campaign money on media buying in the 2017-2018 election cycle, with $3.8 million given to Braddock Road Strategies, a limited liability company in Alexandria, Virginia. 

Including media buying for the 2017-2018 election cycle, Casten’s top-10 expenditures were the following:

  • Media Buying; $3.8 million to Braddock Road Strategies in Virginia
  • TV Advertising; $250,000 to 2K Strategies in Virginia 
  • Loan Forgiveness; $200,000 toward repaying part of a personal donation of Casten’s for his campaign
  • Polling; $193,375 to Hart Research Associates in Washington D.C.
  • Loan Forgiveness; $180,000 toward repaying part of a personal donation of Casten’s for his campaign
  • General Campaign Consulting; $130,002 given to KNI Communications in Illinois and Steel Blue Consulting in Kentucky. 
  • Processing/Service Fee; $122,550 toward ActBlue, a Democratic online-fundraising organization
  • Digital Advertising; $116,253 given to Rapid Results in California and Marked Marketing in Illinois.
  • Payroll; $115,092 toward campaign staff
  • Loan Repayment; $108,243 to fully reimburse Sean Casten for his personal contribution to his campaign

Andrew Mayersohn, the committee’s researcher for the Center for Responsive Politics, said this amount of money being spent on media and advertising is common for political candidates.

“By far, the biggest [portion] of campaign money gets spent on media,” Mayersohn said. “Placing ads on TV mostly, but increasingly the internet as well. Everything else was kind of secondary to that for most major campaigns [in the 2018 Congressional Election].”

Though Casten donated money to other Democratic candidates via ActBlue, he also received money through it in return, which Mayersohn said has become an effective method of fundraising for Democratic candidates.

“You need money to get money,” he said. “And in particular for Democrats these days, they have really easy access to money through ActBlue.” 

Among big-spending, Casten also spent money on eye-catching items, such as essential oils for a campaign event, makeup to be used for his podcast, baby quilts and a vintage clock, which were donated for a silent auction. 

Shepherdson said the District had not seen a congressional campaign as intense as the 2018 one in its history. 

“Nobody at the national level believed that this was anything but a blood-red district,” she said. “They just ignored us in the past because they thought it was impossible for a Democrat to win in the Sixth District.”

But after seeing the District vote for Hillary Clinton in 2016 Presidential Election, she said, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee must have seen an opportunity. 

“They came in and decided that they were going to spend a lot of money in order to flip this district,” she said. 

Now as a first-time incumbent, Casten has spent $403,122 toward the 2019-2020 election cycle to date. The majority of which has been spent on developing his digital campaigning strategy, so far spending $57,000 toward Break Something, an “email and advertising firm working to get progressive candidates elected using unique, innovative digital strategy,” according to the firm’s LinkedIn summary.

Congressional candidates submit a report to the Federal Election Commission every year on how they’ve spent their campaign money. Using campaign finances for personal reasons is prohibited, according to the FEC.

The FEC website states that “If the expense would exist even in the absence of the candidacy or even if the officeholder were not in office, then the personal use ban applies.”

Certain congressional representatives have illicitly used campaign expenditures in the past. Former California Rep. Duncan Hunter is currently undergoing a federal trial for using campaign money for vacations, private school tuition, dental work and theatre tickets. 

Likewise, representatives have used campaign funds in morally questionable — though not illicit — manners. Rep. Bobby Rush of Illinois’ First Congressional District faced criticism from the FEC and various watchdog groups for giving money to family members to compensate them for helping with his 2016 campaign, transferring to them a combined $130,000. 

Casten’s office did not respond to multiple requests to comment on his campaign finance. 

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