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Using newly released FEC data, Elec­tion Spend­ing 2014: 9 Toss-Up Senate Races exam­ines outside spend­ing in 2014’s nine most compet­it­ive U.S. Senate races, the outcomes of which will likely determ­ine which party controls the Senate for the next two years. The report found record highs in total outside spend­ing, “dark money” spend­ing by groups that conceal the iden­tity of their donors, and spend­ing by single-candid­ate groups. In fact, it is likely that eight of these nine races will match or exceed the previ­ous record high for spend­ing in a Senate race, while less than half the expendit­ures so far have come from the candid­ates them­selves. In other words, outside money made possible by weak regu­la­tion and Supreme Court rulings like Citizens United is giving wealthy spend­ers more power than ever to buy influ­ence over elec­tions.


Most Amer­ic­ans know that this is an age of skyrock­et­ing spend­ing on elec­tions. Less widely under­stood is how the source of that spend­ing has dramat­ic­ally changed in recent years, and what that means for our demo­cracy. Outside spend­ing — spend­ing by those other than the candid­ates them­selves — has increased dramat­ic­ally both in dollar terms and as a percent­age of total elec­tion spend­ing. Among outside spend­ers, the portion coming from the polit­ical parties has dimin­ished, as outside groups that are inde­pend­ent of both candid­ates and parties — or at least claim to be so — increase in import­ance.

The key play­ers in our polit­ical system, candid­ates and parties, are not neces­sar­ily account­able for outside spend­ing. And non-candid­ate expendit­ures are often lack­ing in trans­par­ency, leav­ing their effects on polit­ics myster­i­ous. Increas­ingly, outside spend­ing is a way for those who can afford it to evade the regu­la­tion of elec­tions — to try to influ­ence elec­tions without play­ing by the rules of our demo­cracy.

We are now seeing the matur­a­tion of the system created by the Supreme Court’s dereg­u­lat­ory zeal in Citizens United v. FEC. That decision allowed corpor­a­tions and unions to spend their general treas­ury funds on polit­ics. While many feared the decision would result in for-profit corpor­a­tions spend­ing massive amounts directly on elec­tions, it is now clear that the largest impact was a prolif­er­a­tion of outside groups dedic­ated to influ­en­cing elec­tions (some of which may, in fact, be conduits for corpor­ate money). Citizens United led to the creation of super PACs and an explo­sion in the use of nonprofit organ­iz­a­tions to influ­ence elec­tions. Super PACs and nonprofits can accept unlim­ited contri­bu­tions from indi­vidu­als, corpor­a­tions, and unions. Nonprofits are not required to disclose the iden­tit­ies of their donors.

The real­ity of the post-Citizens United world bears little resemb­lance to the Supreme Court’s rose-colored assump­tions. The Court described a system where imme­di­ate disclos­ure would keep the public informed of the poten­tial influ­ence of money. The real­ity is that most nonparty outside spend­ing origin­ates with hidden sources. The Court assumed that outside spend­ing could not corrupt candid­ates because it comes from entit­ies whose activ­ity is inde­pend­ent of candid­ates’ campaigns. The real­ity is that outside groups, some devoted to elect­ing a single candid­ate, cooper­ate with candid­ates in many ways, poten­tially making their unlim­ited contri­bu­tions as valu­able to candid­ates as the direct contri­bu­tions that are subject to strict caps.

This report describes the real­it­ies created by Citizens United by examin­ing the races where it is likely to have the biggest impact in 2014: compet­it­ive races for the U.S. Senate. Money is pour­ing into these races because the Repub­lic­ans are widely seen as having a good chance to take the cham­ber from the Demo­crats, which along with their solid major­ity in the U.S. House, would give them control of Congress.

Our main find­ings include:

Dark Money

  • Dark-money groups that hide some or all of their donors accoun­ted for $88.6 million, or 56 percent, of nonparty outside spend­ing.
    • In the seven races for which we have data on both candid­ate and non-candid­ate spend­ing, dark money amoun­ted to 24 percent of all spend­ing.
    • Our analysis does not include tens of millions of dollars spent on ads that are not required to be repor­ted to the FEC, all of which is dark money, mean­ing the true portion of outside spend­ing is higher.
  • Outside spend­ing in favor of Repub­lic­ans is much more likely to be dark money, (80 percent of nonparty outside expendit­ures), than pro-Demo­crat spend­ing (32 percent of which comes from dark-money groups).

Single-Candid­ate Groups

  • Single-candid­ate outside groups are active in every state in our sample, and they accoun­ted for approx­im­ately half of nonparty spend­ing in Alaska and Kentucky, as well as 30 percent in Geor­gia.
    • There is more single-candid­ate group spend­ing on the Repub­lican side, at $20 million. Pro-Demo­crat candid­ate-specific groups spent $8.3 million. There is reason to believe the partisan differ­ence is due to the fundrais­ing success of Senate Major­ity PAC, a Demo­crat-aligned group and the biggest non-candid­ate spender in our sample. Senate Major­ity has appar­ently attrac­ted donors who might other­wise have given to Demo­cratic single-candid­ate groups.
  • Single-candid­ate groups that are also dark-money groups are a new phenomenon in this elec­tion. In our sample, six of the eight highest-spend­ing candid­ate-specific groups hide some or all of their donors, includ­ing the top candid­ate-specific spender over­all.
  • Single-candid­ate groups depend heav­ily on money from double-dipping donors — indi­vidu­als who have given up to the legal limit in direct contri­bu­tions to the favored candid­ate’s campaign. All but one of these groups got the great major­ity of their indi­vidual dona­tions from maxed-out campaign donors.
    • At least 76 donors gave money to single-candid­ate groups in addi­tion to giving the maximum amount to either the favored candid­ate’s primary or general campaign.
  • Single-candid­ate groups also accept sizable contri­bu­tions from corpor­a­tions and unions, which are completely prohib­ited from giving directly to candid­ates. Some groups got all their revenue from these entit­ies.