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Expert Brief

Outside Spending and Dark Money in Toss-Up Senate Races

These competitive races have attracted the greatest amount of outside spending and reveal significant trends in the influence of money in politics.

Published: October 9, 2014

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As part of a series of analyses of outside spend­ing in the 2014 midterm elec­tions, the Bren­nan Center examined inde­pend­ent expendit­ures repor­ted to the FEC in the nine most compet­it­ive senate contests.* These compet­it­ive races have attrac­ted the greatest amount of outside spend­ing and reveal signi­fic­ant trends in the influ­ence of money in polit­ics. We will release a more detailed report later this month; this analysis conveys some prelim­in­ary find­ings.

$153.8 million in nonparty inde­pend­ent expendit­ures

Massive sums have been spent in these nine compet­it­ive senate races. As a compar­ison, in the last midterms in 2010, nonparty outside spend­ing in all senate races reached only $97 million for 37 contests. As with all analyses of FEC data, these totals do not include spend­ing on ads that are not required to be repor­ted to the FEC because they don’t expli­citly call for a vote and are not aired close to an elec­tion.

55 percent of nonparty outside spend­ing was dark money

Dark money is spend­ing by groups that hide the iden­tit­ies of some or all of their donors. There was $84 million in dark money spent in our nine races more than a month before Elec­tion Day, already approach­ing the $97 million in dark money that was spent across all 33 senate elec­tions in 2012. Our totals don’t include tens of millions in unre­por­ted spend­ing, all of it dark, mean­ing that the true portion of dark money is much higher than 55 percent.

Nonparty Outside Spending by Source

Repub­lic­ans benefited from dark money far more than Demo­crats

Over­all, 80 percent of pro-Repub­lican inde­pend­ent expendit­ures came from dark money groups, compared to 30 percent of outside spend­ing favor­ing Demo­crats. In addi­tion, unre­por­ted spend­ing – where the heavy­weights are conser­vat­ive groups like Amer­ic­ans for Prosper­ity and Cross­roads – leans Repub­lican, mean­ing the 80 percent figure under­es­tim­ates the true extent of the pref­er­ence for secrecy among GOP support­ers.

  • The most active dark money group (and 4th-biggest spender over­all) in our sample is the U.S. Cham­ber of Commerce, a nonprofit trade organ­iz­a­tion that does not disclose its donors. The Cham­ber, with $12.4 million in expendit­ures in these nine contests, was outspent only by the two national party commit­tees and the Demo­crat-aligned Senate Major­ity PAC.
  • Senate Major­ity Leader Mitch McCon­nell has attrac­ted the most dark dollars, with the lion’s share – $7.6 million – spent by a nonprofit group devoted entirely to attack­ing his oppon­ent, Alison Lunder­gan Grimes.

Nonparty Outside Dark Money Spending by Race

Demo­cratic-lean­ing groups spent the primar­ies attack­ing Repub­lic­ans

None of the Demo­crats in our sample faced a compet­it­ive primary, yet primary expendit­ures by outside groups favor­ing Demo­crats totaled $24 million, 84 percent of which was spent attack­ing Repub­lic­ans. Pro-Demo­crat groups spent the most on cross-party primary attacks in Alaska and North Caro­lina, where incum­bent Demo­crats got to wait out compet­it­ive Repub­lican primar­ies, and in Louisi­ana, where the open primary system forces candid­ates from oppos­ing parties to face each other for the whole elec­tion cycle. On the other side of the aisle, pro-Repub­lican outside spend­ing in the primar­ies came to $11 million, with only 17 percent attack­ing Demo­crats.

Expendit­ures increase drastic­ally as Elec­tion Day approaches

Septem­ber alone saw $98 million in inde­pend­ent expendit­ures – more than half of all repor­ted outside spend­ing so far in the cycle. This reflects increased atten­tion to the approach­ing elec­tion as well as the entry of the parties into races after primar­ies conclude. Party commit­tees have spent $35.7 million in our nine races, virtu­ally all of it since the begin­ning of August. The sharp upward trend indic­ates that the true extent of outside spend­ing in 2014 is yet to be seen.

Total Outside Spending by Month

*We examined FEC data, as collec­ted by the Sunlight Found­a­tion, concern­ing inde­pend­ent expendit­ures through Septem­ber 30. We selec­ted races listed as “toss-ups” by the Cook Polit­ical Report: Alaska, Arkan­sas, Color­ado, Geor­gia, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisi­ana, Michigan, and North Caro­lina. Although Kansas also appears on Cook’s list, we excluded it. Kansas became compet­it­ive just this Septem­ber when the Demo­crats succeeded in remov­ing their candid­ate from the ballot to set up a head-to-head contest between the incum­bent Repub­lican and an inde­pend­ent. In an upcom­ing report, we will provide a separ­ate analysis of spend­ing in Kansas during the period it has been compet­it­ive.