Top 5 Senate Races Where Dark Money and Outside Spending Ran Wild

This article has been corrected.

Get ready for a week of pundits making claims of just what was proven by the results of the 2014 midterm elections. But one thing is already quite clear: Money is indeed a deciding factor. Half a billion dollars was spent on U.S. Senate races this year, making this cycle the most expensive midterm campaign ever.

Much of that money was used by non-profit issue groups for what is known as “outside spending”—meaning money used for advertising and other forms of communication ostensibly to support an issue, but most often an issue that is framed in such a way to lend support to the group’s favored candidate. (These are the ads that often say something like: “Call Senator X and tell him to stop [supporting some allegedly terrible thing].")

The 2014 cycle also shows how effectively outside spending groups can sway elections: When conservative groups outspend liberal groups (and sometimes even when they don’t), conservative candidates win. North Carolina, Colorado, Iowa, Alaska, and Arkansas attracted the most outside spending of all the U.S. Senate races. Republicans won all those races, and except for in North Carolina, conservative groups outspent liberal groups every time.

It was that type of deadly effectiveness that led to the Republican knockout.

Senate Majority PAC, whose purpose is to elect Democrats, was the most well-funded superPAC of its kind in the country. It spent millions in the most pivotal of the Senate races. Yet it was largely acting as a stopgap to lessen the disparity between conservative and liberal outside spending groups—and ultimately conservative groups would outspend it.

The midterm was also a trial run for Tom Steyer’s NextGen Climate Action. Things did not go well for the group; it lost just about every election that it spent money in.

The stalwart conservative groups like Crossroads GPS, American Crossroads, and Americans for Prosperity maintained a full stream of money into the elections that mattered and—with the help of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the NRA—outspent Democrats around every turn.

A new norm in American politics is taking hold. It’s one where outside spending has far surpassed what individual candidates can pull together—this year, there were 36 races where outside groups spent more than all candidates.

Let’s just let the numbers, per the Center for Responsive Politics, speak for themselves.

1st Most Outside Spending: North Carolina - $81 Million

Democratic incumbent Kay Hagan’s fight to keep her seat from being taken over by Republican Thom Tillis was not an easy one. Nor was it cheap--with more than $110 million in political spending, North Carolina’s Senate race has been the most expensive U.S. Senate race ever.

It also attracted more outside spending than any other race this cycle. Outside groups—including PACS, superPACs, and 501c’s (the nonprofit so-called social welfare groups empowered by the Supreme Court in the 2010 Citizens United decision)—dished out more than $80 million.

The top spender was the Senate Majority PAC, which spent more than $13 million in the state, airing more ads than Thom Tillis’s campaign. The Democratic SuperPAC spent about $47 million in total this election and was responsible for 45,000 (1 in 10 of all) ads aimed at Senate races, according to the Center for Public Integrity.

Most of the other big spenders were conservative groupsUS Chamber of Commerce, Crossroads GPS, the NRA, and local PAC Carolina Rising spent about $17 million.

2nd Most Outside Spending: Colorado - $69 Million

Republican Cory Gardner staged a surprising upset Tuesday as he unseated Democratic incumbent Mark Udall, winning by more than 100,000 votes. The heated U.S. Senate race in Colorado brought in an unprecedented windfall of political cash from outside groups. In 2008, the last time Democratic incumbent Mark Udall ran, only $20 million came in from outside groups. Outside spending more than tripled during this cycle—to about $70 million this year.

The influx of conservative spending was obviously quite the boon for Gardner’s campaign. Conservatives groups spent $40 million; 75 percent of that was strictly in opposition to Udall. And it seems to have worked. The most enthusiastic of outside spenders was Crossroads GPS, the group founded by Karl Rove, which spent $8.6 million to take down Udall. Most of which was spent on a barrage of more than 7,000 attack ads on Udall.

Billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer’s new SuperPAC NextGen Climate Action pumped in $7.4 million and launched persistent attacks against Gardner’s environmental record. Despite lessening the outside spending gap in many races, NextGen lost every election that it invested in.

The liberal Senate Majority PAC also spent more than $6 million. As in North Carolina, conservative groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the NRA, and Ending Spending were quite influential—each spending more than $3 million.

3rd Most Outside Spending: Iowa - $61 Million

New wave Tea Partier Joni Ernst managed to best Democrat Bill Braley for Iowa’s open Senate seat. The fight for the seat long held by retiring Senator Tom Harkin totaled more than $85 million, with $61 million coming from outside groups.

NextGen and Senate Majority PAC invested about $5 million each to put Braley in office--again, mostly through attack ads.  

Conservative groups American Crossroads (a superPAC founded by Rove) and the Koch brothers’ Freedom Partners Action Fund also pumped in about $5 million each, mostly spent to attack Braley as too partisan.

And again, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and NRA coughed up a few million each.

4th Most Outside Spending: Alaska - $40.6 Million

Out in the last frontier, outside groups spent $40 million in the war over Democratic Senator Mark Begich’s seat. Spending remained pretty much neck and neck between liberal and conservative groups—that is until the last week before the race. American Crossroads, Crossroads GPS, and Americans for Prosperity combined to make a $500,000 push within the last week.

That may have been enough to push Republican Dan Sullivan into office.


5th Most Outside Spending: Arkansas - $39.9 Million

Yes, outside spending in Arkansas may only be a measly half of what it was in North Carolina. But still, $40 million is not nothing.

Money spent on behalf of Republican Tom Cotton romped that spent in favor of incumbent Mark Pryor. And (you guessed it), conservative groups outspent liberal groups.

At $6 million, the liberal Senate Majority PAC spent the most of all groups. That, the Democrats Senatorial Campaign Committee, and the self-proclaimed grassroots (but actually dark money) group Patriot Majority USA made up for what comprised most of the Democratic outside spending. Most was funneled into attack ads on Cotton.

The usual suspects of conservative groups all showed up to play in Arkansas: Freedom Partners Action Fund dished out nearly $4 million. The NRA, Crossroads GPS, American Crossroads, and Arkansas Horizon all spent around $2 million each.

That money of course went toward quality programming, like this gem tying Pryor’s vote record to Obama.


Money may not be the only reason the Democrats took a licking in the midterms, but it's a big one.


This version of this article corrects an error that was introduced in editing: Iowa's retiring U.S. Senator is Tom Harkin, not Charles Grassley.


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