Big money-raisers tend to be big winners

Posted at 8:45 AM, Nov 04, 2014
and last updated 2014-11-04 10:54:53-05

Money can’t buy love, English dramatist Christopher Marlowe famously quipped, but “it improves your bargaining position.”

The same seems to apply to politics, especially in congressional elections.

The last so-called “off-year” election – when presidential candidates were not on the ballot – demonstrated how dominating the effect of money appears to be.

In House races in 2010, the candidates who out-spent their opponents won 86 percent of the time, according to a review of federal financial election records by the Center for Responsive Politics made at the request of the Scripps Washington Bureau. In Senate races that year, the best-financed candidate won 79 percent of the time.

Will the same pattern hold true this year?

“So far, we seem to be at a rough parity with the 2010 elections,” said Viveca Novak of the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan financial watchdog group based in Washington, D.C.

Congressional campaign spending is estimated at $3.7 billion this year, a new spending record for an off-year campaign season, but just barely. Spending was at $3.6 billion in 2010.

Historically, spending in off-year campaigns increases by at least 20 percent over the previous season because federal elections are increasingly attracting special interest monies.

The 2014 races seem almost modest in their rates of spending. “One of the reasons for this is that this particular group of Senate candidates are coming from states where it is not as expensive to run,” Novak said. “The media markets are smaller or cheaper. This, overall, is the cheaper cycle.”

Some of the most expensive races this year are in places such as Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Georgia, Iowa, Kentucky and Minnesota. In all, there are 15 Senate races that are considered competitive, either because incumbents have retired and the seats are open or because the incumbents are considered vulnerable.

These, generally, are not expensive media markets. But since control of the Senate is up for grabs this year, even small states are attracting significant campaign dollars.

The 33 candidates running in these competitive Senate races so far have raised at least $299.1 million, or an average of $9.1 million. When all of the accounting is completed by the end of the year, these relatively inexpensive Senate campaigns probably will surpass the 2012 Senate average in which the typical winning candidate spent $10.5 million.

“We have known for some time that the stars were aligned for a good Republican election year. A midterm election almost always produces losses for the president’s party in congressional and state elections,” concluded Thomas Mann, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

“Those losses are magnified when, as is the case this year, the president’s approval rating is closer to 40 than 50 percent and the public feels pessimistic about the state of the economy and the future of the country,” he said.

But Democratic incumbents in the Senate have all out-raised their Republican challengers, demonstrating the power of incumbency even when prospects are gloomy.

“The perception of vulnerability cuts both ways,” Novak said. “It is not unusual that when a candidate, or party, is considered to be down politically, their fund-raising goes up. Both parties have gotten good at this.”

On the House side, 24 contests are considered to be “toss ups” and have attracted unusually large amounts of money even though control of the House is not in doubt. The 49 candidates running in these House districts have raised $104.4 million, for an average of $2.1 million per candidate.

These figures will rise even higher when the accounting to the Federal Election Commission is completed by the end of the year. But they already are well above the cost of the average victorious House election in 2012, which was $1.7 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

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