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Election Spending 2014: Outside Spending in Senate Races Since 'Citizens United’

Since 2010’s Citizens United decision, outside spend­ing in compet­it­ive Senate races has exploded, with signi­fic­ant increases in the influ­ence of a few wealthy donors, dark money spend­ing that conceals donors’ iden­tit­ies from the public, and single-candid­ate super PACs that circum­vent contri­bu­tion limits.


The Bren­nan Center analyzed outside spend­ing in Senate elec­tions since 2010, the year the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. FEC shook the campaign finance world.[i] We focused on the Senate because in each of the three elec­tion cycles since 2010, it was widely considered possible that party control of the Senate might change hands. When a cham­ber of Congress is up for grabs, we expect to see elev­ated levels of outside spend­ing — the kind of spend­ing dereg­u­lated by Citizens United.

The story that emerges is that outside spend­ing has exploded in the last three federal elec­tions and is highly focused on compet­it­ive races. In 80 percent of compet­it­ive 2014 races, outside spend­ers outspent the candid­ates — some­times by more than double. Because outside groups like super PACs and polit­ical nonprofits can take contri­bu­tions of unlim­ited size, the increas­ing domin­ance of outside money is giving the wealth­i­est few Amer­ic­ans more and more control over the polit­ical process. The highest-spend­ing super PACs depend over­whelm­ingly on large dona­tions in the five- and six-figure range, amounts out of reach for all but a few Amer­ic­ans.

Outside groups’ greater spend­ing power also threatens to evis­cer­ate two corner­stones of the regu­la­tion of money in polit­ics: contri­bu­tion limits and trans­par­ency. The most recent midterms saw more activ­ity by single-candid­ate groups. These organ­iz­a­tions take unlim­ited dona­tions and spend the money exclus­ively in support of one candid­ate, making a mock­ery of long­stand­ing contri­bu­tion limits that guard against the danger of corrup­tion through large contri­bu­tions. And spend­ing by groups that do not fully disclose their donors — “dark money” — has more than doubled since 2010. Dark money too is focused on compet­it­ive races, where it comprises well over a quarter of total expendit­ures repor­ted to the FEC. When the source of elec­tion spend­ing is hidden, voters cannot eval­u­ate the trust­wor­thi­ness of the messages they see, and the public cannot police poten­tially corrupt­ing rela­tion­ships between elec­ted offi­cials and their secret bene­fact­ors.

Key find­ings include:

Outside spend­ing by a tiny number of mega-rich donors has played an increas­ingly import­ant role in each federal elec­tion since Citizens United.

  • Outside spend­ing on Senate elec­tions has more than doubled since 2010, increas­ing to $486 million in 2014. (As with any analysis based on FEC numbers, the totals we report under­es­tim­ate spend­ing, since they do not include amounts spent on sham issue ads that are not required to be repor­ted.)
  • Outside groups spent more than candid­ates in 2014’s closest races.
    • Across the 10 compet­it­ive races that we have candid­ate spend­ing data for, outside groups accoun­ted for the greatest share of spend­ing, or 47 percent. Candid­ates lagged behind with 41 percent, and parties accoun­ted for 12 percent.
    • Candid­ates were outspent by outside groups and parties together in eight of the 10 races. In four of the contests (Alaska, Color­ado, Iowa, and North Caro­lina), candid­ates made only a third or less of the total expendit­ures.
    • Nonparty groups alone spent more than the candid­ates in seven of the 10 states.
  • Super PACs are funded by an exclus­ive few.
    • Of the 10 highest-spend­ing super PACs in the most compet­it­ive Senate races in 2014, all but two got less than one percent of their indi­vidual contri­bu­tions from small donors of $200 or less. Aver­age contri­bu­tions from donors of more than $200 were in the five- and six-figure range.
    • Across all federal elec­tions since Citizens United was decided in 2010, there has been more than $1 billion in super PAC spend­ing. Just 195 indi­vidu­als and their spouses gave almost 60 percent of that money — more than $600 million.

The wealthy have used single-candid­ate groups to support candid­ates far in excess of federal contri­bu­tion limits.

  • In the 11 compet­it­ive Senate races in 2014, 16 candid­ate-specific groups each spent more than $1 million in Senate elec­tions, twice as many as in the last elec­tion. Five of these groups spent more than $3 million; three of them beat the previ­ous cycle’s record high of $5.9 million.
  • Single-candid­ate groups depend heav­ily on donors who have donated the legal limit to the favored candid­ate — several get all or almost all of their contri­bu­tions from these double-dipping donors. Together, the 2014 buddy groups in toss-up races took in $14.2 million from indi­vidu­als, of which $9.2 million came from people who maxed out to the favored candid­ate with either $2,600 (the limit for one elec­tion) or $5,200 (the limit for giving to both a candid­ate’s primary and general elec­tion campaigns).
  • The biggest double-dipping donors gave half a million dollars to single-candid­ate groups — almost 100 times the limit for candid­ate contri­bu­tions.

Dark money played a crit­ical role in fund­ing a new Senate.

  • Dark money in Senate elec­tions has more than doubled since 2010, from $105 million in infla­tion-adjus­ted dollars, to $226 million in 2014.
  • Almost half of the $1 billion in 2014 dollars that outside spend­ers plowed into Senate elec­tions over the last three cycles, $485 million, was dark money.
  • In the 11 most compet­it­ive races in 2014, dark money comprised 59 percent of nonparty outside spend­ing. In the 10 compet­it­ive races that we have candid­ate spend­ing data for, dark money comprised 28 percent of total spend­ing (candid­ate, party, and outside group).
  • The winners in the 11 most compet­it­ive races in 2014 together had more than $131 million in dark money support­ing them — 71 percent of the nonparty outside spend­ing in their favor.

[i] 558 U.S. 310 (2010).