Much has been made of the amount of money raised by Democrat Jon Ossoff, who lost on Tuesday night to Republican Karen Handel in a special election to represent Georgia’s Sixth Congressional District. But while Ossoff raised much more money for his campaign than Handel did for hers, outside conservative groups spent millions on negative, anti-Ossoff ads and used Handel to rake in millions more for their war chests.
With the total amount spent by both sides inching towards $60 million, this astronomically expensive race provides us with an important look at the influence wielded by outside groups. Thanks to decisions like Citizens United, these super PACS and interest groups can spend enormous amounts of money, answering only to their wealthy donors—not voters—and as they are not held to the same standards as the candidates themselves, do not have any qualms about injecting outrageously negative rhetoric and ads into campaigns.
Democratic and progressive groups spent $7.6 million in the Georgia special election. That pales in comparison to the more than $18 million that Republican and conservative groups spent to send Karen Handel to Congress. Almost all of that money was used not in support of Handel but on aggressive attack ads against Ossoff.
The nonpartisan team at I Agree To See wrote that the opposition to Ossoff was vitriolic: “Ossoff was tied to Anarchist rioters three times, Kathy Griffin two times, Nancy Pelosi countless times, San Francisco hipsters a few times, and both the San Bernardino shooters and even Osama Bin Laden.” And that was all before a gunshot-riddled ad put out by “a shady super PAC” tied Ossoff to the shooting of Republican members of Congress at baseball practice.
With a reported combined spending total of more than $12 million, the two biggest outside backers of Handel’s campaign were the Congressional Leadership Fund, which spent $6.2 million, and the National Republican Congressional Committee, which spent about $6 million.
The Congressional Leadership Fund (CLF) is a super PAC that took in over $50 million in 2016, with $20 million coming from Republican mega-donors Sheldon and Miriam Adelson. The National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) raised over $170 million in 2016, with major contributions from the campaigns of Republicans Paul Ryan and Kevin McCarthy as well as donations from Koch Industries, Charles Schwab, and Bain Capital. Between January and June 2017 the NRCC pulled in $52.5 million, including $22 million in checks written by Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI).
The amount of money raised by Ossoff’s and Handel’s campaigns doesn’t tell the whole story. Ultra-wealthy donors who live far away from Georgia were able to contribute unlimited amounts of money to PACs that had free rein to spend whatever they wanted, however they wanted on the election with no repercussions. Karen Handel was then able to avoid accountability for the outrageous attacks carried out by her supporters while herself going after Ossoff for the small dollar donations he received from out of state.