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Senate Election Spending: What to Watch For

With control of the chamber at stake, candidates, parties, and their allies on both sides will pour resources into the upcoming Senate contests.

March 8, 2016

For the past few months, the nation has been riveted by a heated presidential race that has defied expectations, making it easy to forget that Congressional elections are beginning to gear up. Democrats will attempt to take the Senate, and with control of the chamber at stake, candidates, parties, and their allies on both sides will pour resources into Senate contests. In fact, the spending has already begun.

This year, the Brennan Center will track and analyze spending in the most competitive Senate contests, as we did in 2014. Here are a few of the trends we’re expecting.

Spending will be concentrated in a few competitive races.

In 2014, big spenders focused on a few races where they thought their money could move the needle. This year, experts are predicting toss-ups in Senate races in Florida, Illinois, Nevada, New Hampshire, and Wisconsin; close elections are also predicted in Colorado, North Carolina, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. Some of these races, a few of which are in large media markets, may break spending records. Just last cycle, when Republican Thom Tillis ousted one-term incumbent Kay Hagan, North Carolina set a new record for the most expensive Senate election ever, at $116 million. This year, Sen. Richard Burr (R) will defend his seat in the Tar Heel State. Will North Carolina dominate again, or will Florida, with a population twice as large, set a new record?

Outside groups will outspend candidates in close races.

In 2014, candidates were outspent by outside spenders, including super PACs, social welfare nonprofits, and political parties, in eight of the 10 most competitive Senate contests. Three of those states have races on this year’s list of competitive contests. In Colorado, for example, outside groups spent more than twice as much as the candidates in 2014, as Cory Gardner (R) knocked off one-term incumbent Mark Udall (D). This year another freshman Democrat, Michael Bennet, will defend his seat. We’ll be watching to see whether candidates are outspent at even greater levels or perhaps regain some ground.

The sources of much of the spending will be kept secret.

Dark money — spending by groups that don’t disclose their donors — was a major factor in 2014, with 28 percent of total expenditures in the most competitive races coming from groups that hide some or all of their donors. Dark-money groups have a head start on 2016. In Ohio, where Republican Sen. Rob Portman is seeking a second term, the Koch brothers-backed nonprofit Americans for Prosperity has already spent $1.5 million opposing his expected opponent, former Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland. The $1 million in outside money already spent on the Illinois Senate race has come almost entirely from two dark-money groups, with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce supporting first-term incumbent Mark Kirk (R) and supporting his challenger, Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D).

Both the Chamber and Americans for Prosperity are dark-money heavy hitters. Each has spent tens of millions without revealing any of their donors, although Americans for Prosperity reported much less spending last cycle than in 2012. Which groups will be the biggest players in 2016 remains to be seen.

Single-candidate groups will offer donors a way around contribution limits.

Although candidates cannot accept more than $2,700 from each donor for each election, big donors can also give outside groups far larger checks to support their chosen candidates. In 2014, single-candidate groups spent millions on Senate bids, and most of the money came from five- or six-figure donors who had already given the maximum legal contribution to the candidate. Will these groups become as ubiquitous as leadership PACs or the single-candidate super PACs virtually every presidential candidate has?

This year, in the race for the Florida seat left open by presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio’s (R) decision not to seek reelection, multiple candidates have allied super PACs. Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera (R) reportedly delayed officially announcing his bid so that he could raise money for a super PAC. The super PAC favoring Rep. Ron DeSantis reported raising $1.2 million last summer.

Much of the money will come from a few big spenders.

Generally, our campaign finance system is moving in the direction of more money coming from fewer people. In 2014’s top Senate races, the biggest nonparty outside groups had average donations in the six-figure range. This year’s Senate elections are likely to continue that trend. In New Hampshire, for example, the conservative super PAC Ending Spending Action Fund has spent $1.2 million to help first-term Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R); the group’s few donors include hedge fund executive Paul Singer, who contributed $1 million in 2015. Senate Majority PAC, a super PAC dedicated to helping Democrats that has a few million-dollar donors of its own, has spent $600,000 attacking Ayotte.

The price tag for 2016’s presidential contest is likely to be well over $2 billion. Americans are rightly concerned about what big donations buy for the few who can afford them. At the congressional level, the influence of big money on politics can be much stronger simply because the amounts involved are lower.

These trends in campaign finance have the makings of a scandal in slow motion. Americans are outraged at the role of money in politics, and the pressure for reform continues to build. Big money’s role has been expanding dramatically, accelerated by Citizens United, and we will continue documenting the problem and advocating for the proven reforms needed to address it.