Some of New York City’s wealthiest interests are pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars into State Senate races in hopes of warding off the political left – and in some cases outspending the candidates themselves.

Since mid-July, seven super PACs – some funded by real estate interests, Wall Street operatives, or even Madison Square Garden executives – have spent more than $1.6 million trying to influence some of the state’s most competitive Democratic Senate primaries, almost all of which are within the five boroughs.

In some districts, which often span just a few city neighborhoods, the outside money and what it’s used for has the potential to significantly alter the races – particularly when the primary is set for the unusual date of August 23rd, a time when many people are away, making every vote crucial to a candidate’s victory.

“Outside spending could be particularly impactful this year in New York – focusing voters' attention on particular candidates and particular messages in a year that has been confusing and filled with all sorts of information, be it local or national politics,” said Chisun Lee, director of the Brennan Center’s Elections and Government Program.

The heaviest spending has centered on a handful of districts where moderate candidates are squaring off against foes favored by progressives. These include the 33rd District in the Bronx, where liberal incumbent Sen. Gustavo Rivera is facing a challenge from moderate Miguelina Camilo, and in the wide-ranging 59th District, where establishment-backed Elizabeth Crowley is facing democratic socialist candidate Kristen Gonzalez and Michael Corbett, a vice chair of the state Democratic Committee. The influx of money in these races mirrors a strategy seen in the State Assembly primaries in June, when super PACs fueled by real estate interests spent hundreds of thousands dollars in support of centrist candidates – with some success.

By spending through an outside PAC rather than donating directly to the candidates’ campaigns, wealthy interests are able to spend unlimited sums of money under the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision – rather than having to abide by the $7,500 contribution limit for a Senate primary. By law, the PACs have to remain independent and are not allowed to communicate with the candidates’ campaigns.

As of Tuesday, more than 85% of the outside spending on State Senate primaries had come from three groups:

Ad buy blitz

The three PACs have already made their mark in some of the most-watched Democratic primaries, at least financially.

Take the 33rd District, where New Yorkers for a Balanced Albany has spent more than $540,000 on digital ads, direct mailers, phone banks, and polling in support of Camilo or opposing Rivera. That’s more than both candidates’ campaigns have spent, combined.

In the wide open 59th district in Queens, Brooklyn and Manhattan, in just two days earlier this month, a real-estate PAC known as NYC Forward dropped $248,000 on ads and mailers supporting candidate Crowley – about 73% of what her campaign has paid out since January, according to state records.

The NYC Forward ads have been heavily promoted on Facebook, YouTube, and other websites within the district.

The ads aren’t subtle. One 15-second video simply shows two men violently fighting on a city street. On screen, a message pops up – “We need to stop the attacks in the street, and start fighting for you” – as it cuts to an image of Crowley walking in the street and urges people to vote for her.

Another ad opens with the sound of a police scanner and a New York-accented voice saying, “Shots fired.” It criticizes the “Defund the Police” movement before suggesting Crowley will “protect our streets and our rights,” with the latter half being a reference to reproductive rights.

The digital ads were funded by $250,000 in contributions from five organizations, according to NYC Forward’s state disclosures. Of those, $150,000 came from real estate interests – $50,000 each from limited liability corporations associated with the Durst Organization, A&E Real Estate Holdings and REBNY. The remaining $100,000 came from the labor union District Council 9 and its parent organization, the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades.

Neither REBNY nor a representative for DC 9 returned a request for comment. Previously, a union representative told Spectrum News Crowley is a “serious Democrat” and highlighted that she “began her career as a DC 9 painter.”

In a statement, Crowley made clear the ads are not from her campaign. She said she is running on a campaign to “protect a woman's right to choose, make our city more affordable, and reduce crime through smart investments in community programs, mental health, and addiction treatment."

“This group does not speak for my campaign and it does not reflect the messaging my ads have paid for,” she said. “I do not condone the imagery nor content.”

Crowley’s main opponent isn’t convinced.

Kristen Gonzalez is a progressive candidate and community organizer backed by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. She said the outside spending amounts to Crowley breaking her promise to reject real estate donations – even though the money didn’t go directly to Crowley’s campaign.

“I am incredibly concerned because it shows our communities cannot trust Crowley in a housing crisis to actually fight for Democrats and also fight for working-class New York,” Gonzalez said in an interview.

Gonzalez has the backing of the left-leaning Working Families Party, which has been active in recruiting and supporting progressive-minded candidates. The party has been active on the ground, but so far hasn’t put money into any independent expenditures as it did in the June primaries, when it spent about $400,000 on ads and mailers for a slate of Assembly candidates.

Charter school PACs emerge

New Yorkers for a Balanced Albany, meanwhile, is backing outside spending efforts in favor of three candidates: Camilo in the Bronx, Sen. Kevin Parker in Brooklyn, and Angel Vasquez, who is challenging Sen. Robert Jackson in a district spanning upper Manhattan and a piece of the Bronx.

The PAC’s support is based on candidates who support the education reform movement – including charter schools – that is often opposed by the progressive left. The organization is closely aligned with StudentsFirstNY, an advocacy group for charter schools and school choice.

"New Yorkers for a Balanced Albany has a proud history of supporting candidates who advocate for education reform and parent choice,” Crystal McQueen-Taylor, StudentsFirstNY’s executive director, said in a statement. “This year’s elections are critical for parents, and we’re proud to stand with our outstanding slate of candidates. We can’t wait to see what they will bring to Albany.”

Camilo – who has the support of the Bronx Democratic Party – is a supporter of charter schools, while Rivera has long been a critic. The 33rd District runs from Van Nest to Riverdale.

The pro-charter PAC’s major spending in support of Camilo has funded a blitz of social-media ads, which highlight Camilo’s background as the daughter of a bodega owner and as a lawyer who was once president of the Bronx Women’s Bar Association. The only indication the ads are paid for by an outside group comes at the end, when a narrator makes clear they are funded by New Yorkers for a Balanced Albany.

Camilo said her support for charter schools is about “expanding access to more quality education and opportunities for our youth,” not about gaining a PAC’s support. Albany currently controls the number of charter schools that can open across the state. In April, advocates failed to convince the state Legislature to lift the cap on charter schools allowed across the state.

"While strong public schools remain essential to youth development and success, charter schools play a supportive role to our education system, giving families the right and the encouragement to decide on what's right for their children's academic planning and future," Camilo said in an email.

Rivera, like Gonzalez, is also backed by the Working Families Party.

Change on the horizon

While outside spending remains protected free speech in a post-Citizens United world, reformers are hopeful that a key change to the state’s campaign finance laws could help dull the impact of money in politics at the state level.

Starting after the 2022 elections, New York state will implement a program – similar to New York City’s – where donations of $250 and under to state-level political candidates will be matched with state funds at a 6-to-1 rate if the donation came from a New York state resident. The idea is to bolster the power of small donors, though critics say it amounts to a taxpayer handout.

“This is really the boldest and most powerful response possible right now under the current Supreme Court's interpretation of the constitution to big money in politics after Citizens United,” said Lee of the Brennan Center.