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Big money in politics breaks record

At $3.7 billion, 2014 midterm elections were the most expensive ever

November 5, 2014 4:00PM ET

A small overall fundraising advantage — $1.75 billion to Democrats’ $1.64 billion — helped Republicans post sweeping wins on Tuesday. But did money win last night? Well, yes and no. The GOP’s fatter coffers were a plus, but even in key Senate races where Democrats held the fundraising edge, Republicans won.

The Center for Responsive Politics, the nonpartisan money-in-politics research group where I am the executive director, projects that when all of reports are in, these midterms will set a record as the most expensive ever — $3.7 billion — so there’s no denying that the money is bigger than ever and is a key factor for predicting outcomes. But money is even more influential in dictating who runs in the first place. In most races the “wealth primary” — the hurdle of raising enough money to be a viable candidate — is a potent force. Usually by the day of the actual primary, money has already determined the candidate pool.

And yes, as has typically been the case, the overwhelming majority of candidates who spent the most won on Tuesday. Although the recounts and a runoff in Louisiana’s Senate race could tinker with the results around the edges, roughly 94 percent of House candidates who spent the most won. The figure for the Senate was slightly lower — 81 percent — but even that represents an uptick from 2012, when about 76 percent of candidates who spent the most were victorious.

When measured in such a simple way, then, money almost always wins.

But it’s more complicated than that, of course. Even as people who track money in politics all day, every day, we at the CRP are the first to say that money isn’t everything. Candidates need good ideas, strategic and consistent messaging, charisma on the stump, name recognition, a solid campaign infrastructure. By many accounts, the Republicans had an easier message (Obama, Obama, Obama) and were more focused on and successful with their candidate recruitment efforts. They had the right stuff for this electorate — which in midterm elections is smaller, whiter and older, factors that heavily favor the GOP.

But, short of extenuating circumstances (anyone remember Michael Flanagan, the Republican who upset Dan Rostenkowski, then the House Ways and Means Committee chairman, indicted for mail fraud?) money — and lots of it — is absolutely essential to virtually every successful campaign for national office. The other factors don’t matter if a candidate isn’t financially viable. 

Transparency was the sine qua non put forth by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United majority opinion as the basis for allowing unlimited spending from unlimited sources. Somehow we don’t have it. Oops.

Post–Citizens United, another reason it’s not so simple is that it’s no longer just about the candidates and the parties. The ostensibly independent super PACs and highly political nonprofits that can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money have developed some new forms this election cycle, including dozens of single-candidate super PACs — 94 of them, to be exact — which spent more than $50 million dollars on behalf of their favored contenders. In a number of cases, this money originated with family members. Since the super PACs are supposed to operate independently of the candidates, we can only assume that these family members are estranged.

This is the first cycle in which we’ve seen a twist on that theme: dark money single-candidate groups. One of these groups, which aren't required to disclose their donors, was the largest spender in the Kentucky Senate race, forking out $7.6 million on behalf of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (likely the next majority leader). This naturally raises the question, If we can’t know who’s providing the money, how can we know it’s independent of the candidate?

The simple answer is, we can’t. For that matter, we can’t even know if it’s money from Americans, not foreigners. The campaign finance scandals of the 1990s involving funders connected to several Asian countries proved a willingness by foreign individuals, corporations and even governments to inject funds into our elections in the hope of shaping outcomes.

Dark money groups spent $170 million this cycle, concentrated on the most competitive races. However, that’s a minimum figure, since it excludes the more than $100 million (and perhaps much more) spent by such groups on “issue advocacy” that need never be reported to the Federal Election Commission. And dark money groups aren’t the only ones whose donors we can’t know; while super PACs and some other groups do disclose their funding sources, the picture can be murky when the reported donors are newly registered LLCs that leave no trail or politically active nonprofits. Transparency was the sine qua non put forth by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United majority opinion as the basis for allowing unlimited spending from unlimited sources. Somehow we don’t have it. Oops.

This cycle, candidate spending was down while spending by outside groups accounted for a larger slice of the campaign-finance pie. So murky groups, fueled by even murkier donors, have taken more influential roles. Is this what tipped the scales in favor of the GOP on Tuesday? This is difficult to answer, but consider that not only did the GOP have more money overall but also the money that was reported came from fewer donors and they gave far bigger sums than usual — spurred in part by this spring’s Supreme Court decision in FEC v. McCutcheon, which threw out overall limits on individual donations. And more money than ever before came from secret sources. These trends favored conservative candidates.

And it’s not over yet. After targeting the Louisiana Senate race with $40 million in “independent” spending, parties and outside groups reportedly have reserved more than $10 million in airtime aimed at the Dec. 6 runoff.

Yes, Nov. 4 was a great day for Republicans. But it was also a sweeping win for the donors who put them there. Now the challenge is to see who may be bearing IOUs when members of Congress head to Washington in January and what kind of influence those debts of gratitude might buy. 

As executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, Sheila Krumholz is the watchdog group’s chief administrator and spokeswoman, appearing regularly in media as a money-in-politics analyst. She has testified before Congress and the Federal Election Commission on government transparency and regularly makes presentations to news organizations, civil society groups, public officials and others.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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