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Research Report

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

Published: December 1, 2015

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).