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Big money prevails in 2014, with outside spending playing starring role

In 36 races – including Alaska, Arkansas, Iowa and North Carolina – outside spending eclipsed candidate cash

WASHINGTON — While the big story is the Senate majority's shift from blue to red, the real winner in Tuesday's elections was green.

This year’s midterm races are projected to have cost roughly $3.67 billion, according to an analysis by the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP), a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C. That represents a slight increase from the price tag of the 2010 contests, which came in at $3.63 billion.

More notable than the final sum, however, is the source of those funds. Spending in these elections by the vast array of outside groups — super PACs, politically affiliated nonprofits and party committees — eclipsed the sums spent by the candidates themselves in a record high of 36 congressional races, according to the CRP. 

“Candidates are actually spending less, and the slack has been picked up by the outside groups,” said Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the CRP. “More of the decisions and influence in trying to shape these elections are coming from these unaccountable actors, which are actually extensions of the campaigns but not subject to the same rules.”

That was the case in many of this year’s marquee races. In North Carolina’s Senate race, the most expensive in history and the first to cross the $100 million mark, outside groups poured $81 million into the contest between incumbent Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan and her opponent, Republican Thom Tillis. Meanwhile, Hagan and Tillis together shelled out $33.2 million, according to the CRP. Money plowed into Tillis’ campaign helped him take the state — one of a number of Republicans to unseat Democratic incumbents.

In contrast, 2010’s most expensive race was Colorado's senate contest, in which outside groups spent $35.4 million and candidates spent $24.6 — one of 11 races in which outside groups spent more than candidates. 

In Colorado this year, in another race that crossed the $100 million threshold, groups spent $69 million on behalf of Democratic incumbent Sen. Mark Udall and Republican challenger Rep. Cory Gardner, while the contenders spent $27 million combined. Gardner won the seat. The pattern continued in the most competitive and expensive Senate races in the country, from Iowa ($86 million total, $60 million from outside groups) to Arkansas ($59 million total, $39 million from third parties) to New Hampshire ($50 million spent, $30 million from outside groups), according to the CRP.

To put another way, in sparsely populated Alaska, where incumbent Democratic Sen. Mark Begich battled Attorney General Dan Sullivan in vain to hold on to his Senate seat, third-party groups spent $120 on each likely voter, according to numbers calculated by the Sunlight Foundation, a campaign finance watchdog group.

Both liberal and conservative groups are throwing money around. This election year, the big third-party spenders included the usual suspects, such as the National Rifle AssociationAmericans for Prosperity (started by GOP megadonors Charles and David Koch) and the Karl Rove–backed American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS as well as new players like NextGen Climate Action, a super PAC funded by billionaire businessman Tom Steyer to advocate for candidates who back regulations aimed at combating climate change.

“One side will attack the other side for being a tool of Koch brothers, and the other side will attack them for being the tool of liberal billionaires, but the fact is there’s big money on both sides in all of these races,” said Ian Vandewalker, a counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice, an organization in favor of campaign finance reform. “Whoever wins, big money is going to win.”

Since the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision on Citizens United vs. FEC — which unleashed an avalanche of unregulated money into the electoral system — outside groups have morphed from being a sideshow to the main show, analysts said. The ruling allowed third-party organizations to solicit unlimited sums from donors as long as they were not directly coordinating with the campaigns. 

Super PACs are allowed to raise and spend unlimited sums on behalf of candidates, provided that it is done independently of the campaigns. Political nonprofits, meanwhile, may receive unlimited contributions from unions, corporations and individuals, although they must abide by rules limiting their explicit political activity on behalf of or against candidates. 

“As the system continues to mature after Citizens United, you’ll continue to see these shadowy counterparts take on a bigger role,” Krumholz said.    

Meredith McGehee, policy director of the Campaign Legal Center, said outside groups are setting the tone, messaging and agenda for the campaigns — sometimes more than the candidates themselves — reversing the usual order of things in the political process.

“Candidates are becoming bit players in their own campaigns,” she said. “An issue that may not be of concern to most Americans can be a hot topic because someone spent a lot of money airing millions of dollars in ads on it.”

Also problematic is the murky nature of the relationship between candidates and some of the outside groups funding them, particularly those that are not required to disclose their donors, Vandewalker said.

“The voters are bombarded by these outside groups, yet they don’t know the nature of the relationships they are trying to forge with the candidates,” he said. “Those relationships are going to impact the policies and decisions that are made when these candidates actually get into office.”

In some instances, there appeared to be coordination on strategy between campaign and outside groups — or at least opportunity provided by campaigns that outside groups could easily use. The Tillis campaign in North Carolina, for example, emailed an expansive strategy memo to anyone who signed up for updates on his website, detailing his very specific needs, like increasing spending in Asheville and more television ads in Charlotte. Other campaigns posted video footage of their candidates on their websites, which were easily used by outside groups cutting their own ads.  

The outside groups, particularly super PACs and political nonprofits, are overwhelmingly powered by large donors who can give six- and seven-figure amounts and are uninhibited by contribution limits they must abide by when giving to parties, candidates or regular political action committees, campaign finance experts said. 

“Why ask 50 or 100 people for $1,000 when you can ask one person for $50,000 or $100,000?” said Nick Nyhart, president of Public Campaign, an organization that advocates for public financing of elections. “More money is being given by fewer people, and if you look at having money as the first step to getting elected, the number of people who control that process has shrunk.”  

Campaign finance advocates, nevertheless, are hoping that the spending shift is a wake-up call for voters to push for reform.  

“They know that someone else is paying for their candidates’ campaigns and it’s not them. They know that candidate owes someone for their elections and it’s not them,” Nyhart said. “There is a real anger about this, and people feel that their democracy has slipped away from them. The challenge is to organize that anger into something that effects change.”

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