And six other key takeaways on big money in the 2014 elections.
David Koch Phelan M. Ebenhack/AP
Big money from outside spenders like the Koch brothers’ political network and the pro-Democratic Senate Majority PAC dominated this year’s elections. In the battleground states, a voter couldn’t watch five minutes of television, listen to the radio, or cue up a YouTube clip without being bombarded by political ads, most of them of the minor-chord, attack-ad variety. Broadcasters in Alaska, North Carolina, Colorado, and other critical states collected money by the fistful. Major candidates galore had a deep-pocketed super-PAC or a political nonprofit in his or her corner.
Here are seven big-money takeaways from the second election since the Supreme Court’s landscape-changing Citizens United decision.
The price tag for 2014 will probably be the highest in American history.
Candidates, parties, PACs, super-PACs, and political nonprofits—those anonymously funded outfits including the Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity and the pro-Democratic Patriot Majority—were on pace to spend $3.67 billion on the 2014 races, according to projections by the Center for Responsive Politics. That would be a new record, surpassing the $3.63 billion spent in 2010.
When all the numbers are tallied, Republicans will likely outspend the Democrats—but not by much. CRP predicts that Republican candidates and their allies will unload $1.75 billion this election, while Democrats and their supporters will spend $1.64 billion. (The remaining dollars, according to CRP, went toward nonpartisan and third-party spending as well as overhead costs.)
Super-PACs and dark money are a bigger deal than ever.
All those attack ads clogging up the commercial breaks during your favorite show? Chances are they were funded not by a candidate but an outside group—a super-PAC, a labor union, or a political nonprofit.
The 2014 elections will be remembered as the cycle when outside groups handled much of the mudslinging, which traditionally was the responsibility of candidates and their campaigns. In Kentucky, for instance, a secretly funded group called Kentucky Opportunity Coalition ran 12,000 TV ads—many of which attacked Democratic Senate candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes, depicting her as an Obama clone. The group’s commercials accounted for one out of every seven ads run during that race, according to the Center for Public Integrity. On paper, Kentucky Opportunity Coalition was independent of the candidate it supported, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. But the group was run by a former McConnell aide and functioned effectively as an offshoot of McConnell’s campaign.
This pattern unfolded across the country, as outside spending ramped up. In all, outside groups pumped $554 million—$301 million from Republican-aligned shops, $225 million from Democratic allies—into 2014 races. And you guessed it: That, too, is a new record for a midterm election.
Koch and Rove: From zeroes to heroes.
Two years ago, the biggest donors and operatives in the Republican money universe—Karl Rove, casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, and the Koch brothers and their donor network—spent hundreds of millions of dollars to defeat President Obama and retake the Senate. They got nothing; it was an embarrassment.
This year, they won big.
Rove’s groups—American Crossroads, a super-PAC; and Crossroads GPS, its dark-money-funded sibling—spent heavily in 10 Senate races. The Republican won in at least six of those elections. If Republican Dan Sullivan defeats Sen. Mark Begich in Alaska (Sullivan was leading the vote count the day after the election) and GOP Rep. Bill Cassidy ousts Sen. Mary Landrieu in Louisiana’s runoff next month, Rove will end up 8 for 10. The Sunlight Foundation calculates Crossroads GPS’s return on investment—that is, the success rate of GPS’s spending to elect or defeat candidates—at an impressive 96 percent.
The Koch brothers’ flagship organization, Americans for Prosperity, had an equally stellar Election Day. At least five of the nine AFP-backed Senate candidates won. The Kochs’ Freedom Partners Action Fund recorded an 85 percent ROI, according to the Sunlight Foundation.
By contrast, Senate Majority PAC, the super-PAC aligned with Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) that funded more ads than any other outside group, took a beating. It spent $47 million—the most of any super-PAC—but saw only two of the nine Republican candidates it targeted go down to defeat. Senate Majority PAC’s ROI: 9 percent.