Democrats ride monster fundraising to take the House, GOP successfully picks its Senate battles
In what was the most expensive midterm election ever, a cash advantage didn’t always translate to success at the polls for congressional candidates.
Still, the candidate with more money won most of the time, and fundraising and outside spending trends appear to match up with election results. Democrats soundly took the House while outraising Republicans by more than $300 million. Republicans picked up several seats in the Senate despite being outraised overall, but in key toss-up Senate races in red states, candidate fundraising and outside spending totals were generally close.
Eighty-nine percent of House races were won by the biggest spender, compared to 84 percent of Senate races. When factoring in outside money and fundraising, the House candidate supported by more money won 91 percent of the time and the better-funded Senate candidate won 84 percent of the time.
“Despite record numbers of women, people of color, and first-time candidates running, yesterday’s results show, once again, how powerful money is in our politics,” said Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics. “Whether dark money funneled through super PACs or funds raised from small donors, these midterm elections were deluged with money.”
Democrats made it a point to challenge every House seat, even in the reddest districts, and the strategy paid off with a handful of upsets.
The Congressional Leadership Fund (CLF) did its best to try to keep the House red — spending more than $137 million in media to lead all outside groups — but with Democratic candidates raising millions across the country, the group simply couldn’t afford to defend every seat.
Several deep red districts that weren’t on the GOP’s radar — South Carolina’s 1st, Oklahoma’s 5th and New York’s 11th — shockingly went to Democrats, all of whom experienced little or no negative ads from conservative outside groups.
Outside spending efforts, for the most part, worked like a charm for Democratic outside groups. Liberal groups were successful in kicking out Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) — spending north of $11 million in negative media to do so — and potentially won Washington’s extremely-expensive 8th District race, in which they outspent conservative groups $10 million to $8.8 million.
Outside groups picked their battles well. In a majority of House races that featured the most outside spending, the race was decided by less than three percentage points. However, Democrats appear to have won most of the high-spending races, including Michigan’s 8th, Colorado’s 6th, Florida’s 26th and Texas’ 32nd.
On the Senate side, liberal ‘dark money’ group Majority Forward was less successful. It spent more than $24 million to support Democratic Senate hopefuls in Tennessee, Arizona, Indiana and Florida. Two of the races are confirmed to have gone to the GOP and Republicans lead in Arizona and Florida.
In Missouri, Republican Senate winner Josh Hawley got the most outside support from a combination of dark money and partially-disclosing groups, which either don’t disclose all of their donors or accept money from dark money sources. He was boosted by $25 million in media expenditures from these groups, including more than $20 million from the Senate Leadership Fund super PAC, which accepts millions from dark money nonprofit One Nation.
Tennessee Senate winner Marsha Blackburn ($20 million) and Indiana winner Mike Braun ($18 million) also benefited from these sources of outside spending.
For the first time ever, outside spending outpaced the amount of money raised by candidates in 40 races. The number will likely fall as candidates’ final fundraising numbers are filed with the FEC.
The Senate fundraising numbers are skewed by the biggest Democratic recipients, several of whom set fundraising records in losses. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) lost her seat to Kevin Cramer despite outraising him $27 million to $5.5 million. Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) fell to Sen. Ted Cruz despite collecting a record $69 million through Oct. 17.
On the other hand, some candidates didn’t need to raise much to win their races. Sen. Mazie Hirono won with less than $3.3 million raised.
The cheapest congressional win went to Rep. Grace Napolitano (D-Calif.), who won while spending less than $175,000. Her opponent didn’t crack $6,000 raised.
In what amounts to a change compared to previous cycles, some of the most generous self-funders saw success in their Senate races.
Republican businessman Mike Braun defeated Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.) by a substantial margin, all while pouring more than $9 million of his own money into his campaign.
The Florida Senate race is likely to head to a recount, but Republican challenger Rick Scott — who gave his own campaign more than $50 million and is linked to a super PAC that supports him — leads with 50.2 percent of the vote.
New Jersey Senate challenger Mike Hugin ($27.5 million in self-financing) was less successful running in the blue state.
Incumbents fared about as well as they usually do. House incumbents won 93 percent of the time and Senate incumbents won 86 percent of the time.
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