Republicans made the most of their fundraising advantage and routed Democrats in Tuesday’s midterms, but they seized the majority in the Senate and built their lead in the House even as fewer donors participated in the process and more of the dollars came from secret sources.
Democrats weren’t swamped when it came to the money game, but the GOP clearly had the upper hand. Even where Democrats had raised more in pivotal Senate races, though, they still were mostly beaten. Several key differences between the two sides emerged on the fundraising front, with Democrats increasing their reliance on small donors since 2010 while Republicans turned sharply to big dollar donors.
The real story of the election’s campaign finance chapter was not which side had more resources, but that such a large chunk of the cost was paid for by a small group of ultra-wealthy donors using outside groups to bury voters with an avalanche of spending. Both sides had plenty of support from outside spenders, but Republican and conservative outside groups outpaced the spending of Democratic and liberal ones. Democratic/liberal groups channeled most of their money through organizations that disclosed donors, while their more conservative counterparts relied heavily on secret sources funneling money through political nonprofits.
Some things seem never to change, and this year’s midterms reprised many of the same old stories. But there were also a handful of surprises, some of which may portend new dynamics in how elections are financed.
Every election since 1998 has been more expensive than the one before it, and predictably the 2014 election will follow that path, CRP has projected — though the total projected cost of $3.67 billion is only a slight uptick over the price tag of the 2010 midterm. Counting all forms of spending — by candidates, parties and outside groups — Team Red is projected to have spent $1.75 billion, while Team Blue’s spending is projected to ring in at $1.64 billion.
CRP’s analysis of last night’s results finds that in House races, the candidate who spent the most prevailed 94.2 percent of the time; the Senate figure is slightly lower, 81.8 percent. Despite several key upsets of Senate Democrats who, as incumbents, had the cash advantage, this is actually an increase from 2012, when 93.8 percent of higher-spending candidates in the House won, and just 75.8 percent of those candidates in the Senate could claim victory.
None of those trends are new or terribly surprising.
What is different is the apparent decline in the number of donors. Just as every election since 1998 has been more expensive than the last comparable one, every election also saw more donors than the one before. It appears the 2014 election will break that chain, with a smaller number of overall individual donors. And the campaigns themselves are projected to spend less money than in the previous election: In 2010, they spent $1.8 billion, and this cycle they are projected to lay out $1.5 billion.
Of the money raised by Senate and House campaigns, CRP’s analysis shows, the bulk still came from individual donors (as opposed to PACs), but Republicans dramatically reduced their reliance on donors who gave $200 or less, while Democrats leaned on them slightly more than in 2010.
One striking development: The cost of the average winning campaign in both the House and Senate declined, as measured by the money spent by the candidates themselves — even as the total cost of the election increased. The average winning House campaign cost $1.2 million, down from $1.5 million in 2012. And the average winning Senate campaign cost $8.6 million, down from $11.4 million in 2012 — even with several Senate races setting records for their final price tag. One reason: Outside groups did some of the heavy lifting, outspending the candidates in 36 races. That’s a new dynamic in elections: These groups — dozens of them devoted to a single candidate — are increasingly buying ads, getting out the vote, doing opposition research and taking on other activities that have usually been up to campaigns to execute.
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