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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.