2014 ELECTION RETROSPECTIVE PART 1: THE MONEY

ABSTRACT: In the 2014 election, the influx and impact of huge amounts of money was clearly evident and the growth of “dark money” – money where the actual contributor is unknown – was a very significant factor. This was the most expensive non-presidential election ever – estimated at $3.7 billion. Outside spending, that is money not spent by the candidates’ campaigns themselves but by supposedly independent groups and the political parties, was more than the spending by the candidates themselves for the first time. This means that accountability for much of what’s said during campaigns no longer rests with the candidates. One facet of this is that a predominant portion of the ads paid for by outside money are negative ads that attack a candidate. These campaign practices undermine both the functioning of and the faith in our democracy.

Roughly a billion dollars was spent on the 36 US Senate races alone – an average of about $30 million each. In the 11 most competitive races for the US Senate, $342 million of non-party outside money was spent with $203 million of this (59%) being “dark money” where the true donor is unknown. The typical contribution to the 5 largest non-party outside spending entities that disclose donors was over $100,000.

The real money story of this election was not which side had more resources, but that such a large chunk of the cost was paid for by a small group of ultra-wealthy donors. By super-sizing contributions that benefit specific candidates, the likelihood of corruption escalates because elected officials are pressured to repay big donors after the election.

The results of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United and other decisions couldn’t be clearer. Hundreds of millions of dollars from undisclosed donors are flooding our elections. Very wealthy donors are contributing millions of dollars. There is very strong evidence that this money is influencing who wins our elections, because the candidate supported by the most money usually wins. This was true for 94% of US House races and 82% of US Senate races in 2014.

There is also strong evidence that our Congress returns the favor by supporting the wealthy interests that funded their elections and put them in office – to the detriment of the middle and working classes. We need look no further than Wall St. to see the evidence: corporate profits, stock prices, CEO pay, and investors’ wealth have never been higher. Yet, the middle and working class still struggle to make ends meet.

This is not democracy. We need to reverse the Supreme Court’s decisions through a Constitutional Amendment. In the meantime we need much stronger disclosure laws for campaign spending so we know who is trying to influence our votes. More on this next time.

FULL POST: In the 2014 election, the influx and impact of huge amounts of money was clearly evident and the growth of “dark money” – money where the actual contributor is unknown – was a very significant factor.

In this post, I will review the role of money in the 2014 national election. In a subsequent post, I’ll identify ways we can address the corrupting and undemocratic flow of huge sums of money into our elections. Further analysis of the 2014 election in future posts will cover some state and local elections results, as well as the success of progressive candidates and ballot initiatives (despite the general, national success of “conservative” and Republican candidates).

This was the most expensive non-presidential campaign ever – estimated at $3.7 billion. Outside spending, that is money not spent by the candidates’ campaigns themselves but by supposedly independent groups and the political parties, was more than the spending by the candidates themselves for the first time. This means that accountability for much of what’s said during campaigns no longer rests with the candidates. They can – and do – say that they have no control over the outside groups. With increasing amounts of outside spending, and especially the growth of spending by groups that do not have to disclose contributors, accountability for and constraints on what is said vanish. One facet of this is that a predominant portion of the ads paid for by outside money are negative ads that attack a candidate. This tends to discourage people from voting and lowers their opinions of our elected officials and government. These campaign practices undermine both the functioning of and the faith in our democracy.

Roughly a billion dollars was spent on the 36 US Senate races alone – an average of about $30 million each. North Carolina’s Senate race was the most expensive ever with $116 million spent, including $84 million of outside spending – which shattered the previous outside spending record of $52 million. Spending on the 10 most expensive US House races averaged over $16 million each. [1]

In the 11 most competitive races for the US Senate, [2] $342 million in non-party outside money was spent, plus $89 million from the political parties. The non-party, outside spending on just these 11 races is one-third more than the outside spending on all 33 Senate races in 2012. Of the $342 million of non-party outside money, $203 million (59%) was “dark money” where the true donor is unknown. And this “dark money” may have tipped these elections, as winners of these races received twice as much “dark money” as the losers. For the 8 Republican winners, an average of 78% of their non-party, outside money was “dark money.” [3]

Non-party outside spending is NOT funded by regular voters. The typical contribution to the 5 largest non-party outside spending entities that disclose donors was over $100,000. For sake of comparison, this is more than the average household income in the US, which is $73,000. Of the top 20 outside spending groups, which together spent over $300 million, 7 provide no disclosure of donors, 5 provide partial disclosure, and only 8 provide full disclosure (2 of which are the national parties). [4]

To get an idea of the huge amounts these large donors give:

  • The top 20 individual donors to outside groups gave an average of $8.4 million each, while
  • The top 20 organizations donating to outside groups gave an average of $5.8 million each.

All told, these two groups of 40 donors gave a combined $284.7 million, which far exceeds the projected spending of either of the national parties. [5]

This election documented again that money is a deciding factor. When “conservative” outside groups outspent “liberal” groups, the “conservative,” i.e., Republican, candidate won every time. [6] However, the real money story of this election was not which side had more resources, but that such a large chunk of the cost was paid for by a small group of ultra-wealthy donors. [7]

A particular type of outside spending that is of special concern is candidate-specific super PACs. Big donors are using these groups to evade limits on contributions directly to candidates. By super-sizing contributions that benefit specific candidates, the likelihood of corruption escalates because elected officials are pressured to repay big outside donors after the election. [8]

The results of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United and other decisions couldn’t be clearer. Hundreds of millions of dollars from undisclosed donors are flooding our elections. Very wealthy donors are contributing millions of dollars. There is very strong evidence that this money is influencing who wins our elections, because the candidate supported by the most money usually wins. This was true for 94% of US House races and 82% of US Senate races in 2014.

As others have said, we have the best Congress money can buy. There is also strong evidence that our Congress returns the favor by supporting the wealthy interests that funded their elections and put them in office – to the detriment of the middle and working classes. We need look no further than Wall St. to see the evidence: corporate profits, stock prices, CEO pay, and investors’ wealth have never been higher. Yet, the middle and working class still struggle to make ends meet.

This is not democracy. We need to reverse the Supreme Court’s decisions through a Constitutional Amendment. In the meantime we need much stronger disclosure laws for campaign spending so we know who is trying to influence our votes. Unfortunately, Congress is very unlikely to strengthen disclosure laws, so it will be up to each state to do so.

More on what’s being done to address these issues, and on what you can do, in an upcoming post.

[1]       Waldman, P., 11/11/14, “This year’s biggest spenders,” The American Prospect

[2]       Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Georgia, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, New Hampshire, and North Carolina.

[3]       Vandewalker, I., 11/10/14, “Outside spending and dark money in toss-up Senate races: Post-election update,” Brennan Center for Justice (http://www.brennancenter.org/analysis/outside-spending-and-dark-money-toss-senate-races-post-election-update)

[4]       Vandewalker, I., 11/10/14, see above

[5]       OpenSecrets.org, 10/29/14, “Overall Spending Inches Up in 2014: Megadonors Equip Outside Groups to Capture a Bigger Share of the Pie,” Center for Responsive Politics (http://www.opensecrets.org/news/2014/10/overall-spending-inches-up-in-2014-megadonors-equip-outside-groups-to-capture-a-bigger-share-of-the-pie/)

[6]       Miller, J., 11/5/14, “Top 5 Senate races where dark money and outside spending ran wild,” The American Prospect

[7]       Choma, R., 11/5/14, “Money won on Tuesday, but rules of the game changed,” Center for Responsive Politics (https://www.opensecrets.org/news/2014/11/money-won-on-tuesday-but-rules-of-the-game-changed/)

[8]       Vandewalker, I., 10/21/14, “Election Spending 2014: 9 Toss-Up Senate Races,” Brennan Center for Justice (http://www.brennancenter.org/publication/election-spending-2014-9-toss-senate-races)

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