Election Spending 2012: 25 Toss-Up House Races

October 22, 2012

This election season, an influx of outside money made possible by the Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United has redrawn the political landscape. Using the most recent Federal Election Commission campaign finance filings, this report examines the role of spending by independent groups, political parties, and candidates in the 25 most hotly contested House races, which will likely determine which party will control the House.

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Introduction

This election season, an influx of outside money made possible by the Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United has redrawn the political landscape. Historical spending records will be shattered. Most attention has focused on the battle for the White House and Senate. But control of the House of Representatives is at stake, too. Victories in relatively few Congressional contests could shift control of the chamber. Not surprisingly, large sums are raised and spent in these races. Here, too, the new reality of big money in American politics makes itself felt.

This issue brief analyzes the most hotly contested House races, focusing on the 25 toss-up House races identified by the Cook Political Report one month before Election Day. The outcomes of these 25 races will go a long way towards determining which party controls the House in the 113th Congress. 

Relying on the most recent Federal Election Commission (FEC) campaign finance filings, we examine three key spending patterns in these toss-up districts. First, we examine the relative role of candidate spending as compared to spending by party committees and independent outside groups, through September 30th. Next, we examine the role played by small donors and larger donors in driving candidate fundraising through the end of September. Finally, we examine outside group and party committee spending over the first two weeks of October. In the 2010 election, much of the surge in Republican outside spending that helped the GOP retake the House only came in October. In this issue brief, we assess whether a similar surge happened through the first half of October 2012. 

At the outset, it is important to note that while the outside spending totals reported here include expenditures by non-profit groups on “express advocacy,” which are reported to the FEC, they do not include expenditures on any so-called “issue ads” that tax-exempt groups ran early in the campaign, which are not required to be reported to the FEC. Therefore, the figures cited in this issue brief understate the absolute totals of outside spending this election cycle. The analysis here focuses on the total expenditures that have been publicly reported to the FEC. Given the torrid pace of spending in House races, the trends we identify may change over the final weeks of the election.

Based on the Brennan Center's analysis of the 25 toss-up House races, several important trends emerge:

  • Through the end of September, outside group spending was on par with party committee spending in the 25 toss-up House races: the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) together spent $24.9 million, while Republican-leaning and Democratic-leaning outside groups spent $24.8 million. Outside group spending has nearly kept pace with party committee spending through the first two weeks of October, too. The fact that outside group spending and party spending are roughly on par affirms the importance of outside groups in shaping the electoral landscape in 2012.
  • In 11 of the 25 toss-up House races, candidate spending accounted for less than half of the total money spent in the district through the end of September. Overall, in the 25 toss-up House races, candidate spending accounted for less than 60 percent of all spending.
  • Disclosed Republican spending in the 25 toss-up House races exceeded Democratic spending by $14 million through the end of September: Republican spending totaled $68.7 million and Democratic spending totaled $54.7 million. This aggregate disparity, however, is somewhat misleading. A single race — in Florida's 18th district, represented by Republican freshman Allen West — accounts for much of the disparity, as West has dramatically outspent his Democratic opponent. Leaving aside the spending patterns in West's district, the aggregate totals are much closer: Republicans have outspent Democrats by $5 million through the end of September in the other two-dozen other toss-up House races, spending $56 million compared to the Democrats’ $51 million. Republicans had an overall spending advantage in 15 of these 24 races.
  • Through the end of September, Republicans relied more on non-candidate spending (which includes party committee and outside group spending) than their Democratic counterparts: excluding the 18th district in Florida, three-fifths of Democratic spending comes from candidates, as compared to barely one-half of Republican spending. Higher spending by the NRCC — more so than its Democratic counterpart— carried Republicans to a slight overall money advantage in toss-up House races, not higher spending by Republican-leaning Super PACs and outside groups. Republicans did not have a spending advantage among Super PACs and other outside groups; to the contrary, Super PACs and other outside groups actually made up a slightly larger share of overall Democratic spending than overall Republican spending through the end of September.
  • Most Republican and Democratic candidates in the 25 toss-up House races have not relied significantly on small donors. Republican candidates raised 18.3 percent of their money from small donations of $200 or less through the end of September, compared to 12.5 percent for Democratic candidates. But here, too, a single data point — Florida's 18th district, where the incumbent Allen West raised a staggering $7.4 million in small donations through September 30th — accounts for much of this disparity. Excluding Florida's 18th district, Republican candidates in the other two-dozen toss-up races raised 7.6 percent of their money from small donations, compared to 12.4 percent for Democrats. In 17 of these 24 toss-up races, small donations made up a greater portion of candidate fundraising for Democrats than for Republicans.
  • Republicans in the 25 toss-up House races had a slight advantage in overall non-candidate spending during the first two weeks of October. However, they gained that advantage only because the NRCC significantly outspent the DCCC. Excluding the two party committees, during the first two weeks of October, Democratic-leaning Super PACs and other outside groups actually spent slightly more than their Republican counterparts in the 25 toss-up House districts. This suggests that unlike the 2010 election, there has yet to be a significant October Republican surge in outside spending in the most competitive House races.

    The candidate spending data in this issue brief are derived from the Center for Responsive Politics' compilation of data from candidates' Federal Election Commission (FEC) filings. We define small donations as those of $200 or less. FEC filings refer to these as "unitemized contributions"; donations larger than $200 are referred to as “itemized contributions” by the FEC. The independent expenditure data are based on the Brennan Center's analysis of Federal Election Commission (FEC) filings. To enable accurate comparisons between candidate and independent spending based on the respective filing deadlines, Parts I and II of this issue brief examine only spending data through September 30th. Part III, by contrast, focuses on independent spending between October 1st and October 15th.


    Election Spending 2012: 25 Toss Up House Races