2014 is looking to be a bumper year for election spending. After the Citizens United ruling in 2010, that year’s midterms became a test case for how the newly-minted Super PACs and newly-empowered “dark money” groups would use their strength. They must have liked what their spending bought them, because this year they are back with a vengeance.
According to Open Secrets, spending by outside groups as of May 6th in this election cycle has approximately tripled from the amount outside groups spent in the same time period leading up to the 2010 midterms (leaping from $16.6 million in 2010 to $72.7 million in 2014). In 2006, this number was $2.5 million – that’s a twenty-nine-fold increase in just two midterm cycles. At this rate, outside spending on this year’s midterms is set to far outpace even outside spending in the 2008 presidential election cycle.
The influence of outside spending groups has increased so much that in some races they are spending far more than the candidates themselves. Forty-nine percent of all election spending on this year’s midterms so far has come from outside spending groups. In hotly contested races, the proportion is even higher. In the North Carolina U.S. Senate race – which is the most expensive so far this cycle – 90 percent of all spending has come from outside groups, 58 percent of which are “dark money” groups not required to disclose their donors like Super PACs do.
The new era of “big money” election spending disproportionately benefits conservative candidates. Seventy-two percent of donors who had maxed out their aggregate contribution limits before the Supreme Court struck down those limits in April had contributed only to Republicans. Forty-five percent of these donors were in the finance industry. In addition, Americans for Prosperity, the Koch brothers-linked “dark money” group, accounts for nearly one third of all independent expenditures on television advertising so far in this election cycle.
In the wake of the Supreme Court’s McCutcheon decision, just as reformers predicted, the Republican Party is forming “super joint fundraising committees” that pool large checks from big donors and – now unrestrained by aggregate contribution limits – redirect that money to long lists of candidate campaigns.
The consequences of the influx of “big money” into our elections are clear for the vast majority of Americans who can’t afford to write large check to candidates: they’re being squeezed out of the process. According to the Brennan Center, in current “high-dollar” federal races, only nine percent of funds have come from donations of $200 or less.
Simply put, these trends are disturbing. Even before Citizens United, it was becoming clear that money played an outsized role in our politics. The continued ability of corporations, special interests and wealthy individuals to spend limitlessly on elections calls into question the health of our democracy. The concentration of power away from the voters and towards the donor class creates the specter – and very real threat – of a Congress wholly populated by those elected by dollars, not votes.