Most expensive midterm ever: Cost of 2018 election surpasses $5.7 billion

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It’s official: the 2018 election was the most expensive midterm ever by a large margin, with total spending surpassing $5.7 billion, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics.

The final tally surpasses the conservative $5.2 billion projection the Center released in October.

With more than $5.7 billion shelled out by candidates, parties, committees, PACs and outside groups, the 2018 midterm leapfrogs even the then-record breaking 2008 presidential election which saw nearly $5.3 billion in total spending. It also smashes the previous midterm spending record of $3.8 billion in 2014.

“Just as the 2018 elections brought historic wins for a more diverse group of candidates, they also saw greater spending than we’ve ever seen or anticipated for a midterm election, capitalizing on years of loosened campaign finance regulation and oversight,” said Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics.

With more money to play with than ever before, total candidate spending grew by more than $1 billion over the previous midterm election cycle. Non-party outside spending experienced a larger percentage increase — 84 percent over 2014 — as it ballooned to nearly $1.1 billion.

Naturally, the most expensive midterm election resulted in several record-breaking individual races. Candidates and groups spent a record $209 million in Florida’s U.S. Senate race, candidates in the Texas U.S. Senate race spent an unprecedented $125 million and nine of the 10 priciest non-special election House races ever took place in 2018.

Though Democrats lost crucial Senate races, they made massive gains in the House thanks in part to an unprecedented $300 million spending advantage — and the candidate with more money usually wins.

David versus Goliath

Large individual contributions, defined by the FEC as $200 or more, accounted for $2.9 billion of the $4 billion in individual contributions flowing to candidates, outside groups, party committees and 527 committees.

The 10 most generous megadonors combined to pour $436 million into the election, displaying the widespread influence of wealthy individuals in the post-Citizens United era. Able to give unlimited dollars to super PACs, Sheldon and Miriam Adelson gave more than $123 million to help Republicans while Michael Bloomberg threw in $90 million to help Democrats.

The aftermath of McCutcheon v. FEC — the 2014 Supreme Court decision that removed an aggregate limit on contributions an individual can make over a two-year period — was especially evident in 2018. Twelve individuals (three Democrats and nine Republicans) gave more than $1 million to powerful joint fundraising committees in the 2018 cycle.

It was a banner year of sorts for wealthy self-funders, too. Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) poured in more than $63 million of his own money to win his Senate race. Self-funders don’t have the most successful track record, but Rep. David Trone (D-Md.), Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.) and Rep. Gil Cisneros (D-Calif.) all spent more than $9 million of their own money and won.

That’s not to say small donors — the most coveted source of funding for any candidate — didn’t make an impact. Small individual contributions totaled more than $1 billion, up from $641 million in 2014. The bulk of skyrocketing small donor contributions went to candidates, who brought in $498 million from small contributions over the $196 million total in 2014.  

“Although a small group of wealthy individuals continue to drive the cost of elections ever higher by donating millions to outside groups, candidates are countering their influence by relying more and more on small donations” said Sarah Bryner, research director at the Center for Responsive Politics. “Elections may be more expensive, but in 2018 we saw that candidates are able to convert small dollars into wins, and we suspect that this trend will continue into the presidential cycle.”

Democrats go “dark,” Republicans restructure

Undisclosed “dark money” spending from liberal groups totaled $81 million, compared to just $43 million for their conservative counterparts. It’s a stark departure from 2014, when non-disclosing conservative groups outspent liberal ones $140 million to $39 million.

Majority Forward, a dark money nonprofit connected to current and former Democratic Senate leaders, led the way with $46 million in outside spending reported to the FEC. The former dark money leader, the conservative U.S. Chamber of Commerce, reported just under $12 million in outside spending this cycle, way down from the $35 million it spent in 2014.

On its face, direct dark money spending in elections is down overall, but total FEC-reported spending by non-disclosing groups doesn’t tell the whole story.

These outside spending figures do not take into account so-called “issue ads,” political ads which do not explicitly advocate for or against a candidate and do not require groups to disclose their ad spending to the FEC unless the ads are run within 60 days of the general election or 30 days of the primary election.

Dark money groups use ongoing issues — such as the battle over Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh — as a way to attack or prop up candidates without explicitly advocating for or against them.

Additionally, there’s evidence dark money is being reorganized and restructured. Partially-disclosing groups reported more than $391 million to the FEC in 2018 election spending, a record-breaking election cycle for spending by groups that “only disclose some of their donors or dark money sources.

Non-disclosing groups gave more than $176 million to super PACs and hybrid PACs during the 2018 election cycle.

Though dark money was distributed this way at nearly equal levels between conservative and liberal groups, major conservative super PACs Congressional Leadership Fund ($27 million contributed from non-disclosing groups) and Senate Leadership Fund ($20 million) took in more dark money than any other super PACs.

Women run, women give, women win

The widespread success of Democratic women in 2018 is often credited to an unlikely source of inspiration: Donald Trump. As described by Rep. Mikie Sherrill, the winner in New Jersey’s contested 11th Congressional District, Trump’s 2016 victory “was a slap in the face to a lot of us.”

A record 793 women ran and raised money this cycle — including 515 Democrats and 188 Republicans — making up 22 percent of all viable congressional candidates. The previous records were broken for both parties this cycle — the previous records were 247 Democratic women in 2012 and 178 Republican women in 2010.

As women filed for office at a record pace, women also gave to congressional candidates in record amounts, accounting for $514 million in itemized contributions to major party candidates during the midterm.

That money wasn’t evenly distributed along party lines. With so many more women running as Democrats than Republicans, the bulk of those contributions — nearly $383 million — went to Democratic candidates.

Senators Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) are among six Senate candidates who got half or more of their itemized contributions from women. Forty-seven House candidates received half or more of their itemized contributions from women in 2018. In 2016, only 12 congressional candidates hit the threshold.

In another record-breaking feat, 127 women now serve in Congress — 106 Democrats and 21 Republicans. That’s a 17 percent increase in the number of women serving in the House, raising the percentage of women serving in Congress to 23.6 percent. However the increase was driven entirely by Democratic women, as the number of Republican women fell from 29 in the 115th Congress.

To 2020 … and beyond

For 2020 Democratic presidential hopefuls, rejecting contributions from corporate PACs has become as strong a litmus test as supporting Medicare-For-All.

The trend accelerated during the 2018 cycle when countless first-time Democratic candidates declared they wouldn’t be taking corporate PAC money. The strategy worked, as dozens of the no-PAC Democrats were elected to the House, and they certainly weren’t strapped for cash.

In a movement that will likely grow as 2020 nears, at least 52 members of the 116th Congress have disavowed corporate PAC money so far, including all of those whom have declared a run for president as of this Feb. 7 release.

The anti-PAC message is popular, despite the fact that total contributions from PACs — hindered by contribution limits that have not increased in decades — remain stagnant as all other forms of contributions continue to skyrocket. PACs gave $690 million to candidates and party committees in 2018, up a relatively small amount from $639 million in 2014.

Ahead of 2020, Democrats aren’t just rejecting corporate PACs — they’re also following Trump’s 2016 playbook of “rejecting” super PACs. Trump disavowed super PACs despite being aided by hundreds of millions of dollars in super PAC spending — independent expenditures that he or any other candidate can’t legally control.

Despite the apparent widespread disdain for super PACs and dark money groups, outside spending from these groups will likely smash records again in 2020. Presidential candidates are declaring remarkably early, providing outside groups with a wider window to launch ads in an attempt to either bolster or attack them.

More time as a 2020 contender gives candidates better name recognition and more time to raise money — the most important aspect of any campaign, especially for those angling for a seat in the Oval Office. Several prominent presidential candidates ended 2018 with serious cash on hand, including Gillibrand ($10.3 million) and Warren ($11.1 million) but they will need much more money win the whole thing. That’s part of why these candidates are declaring so early and leveraging their resources to attract more donors.  

Outside groups, too, are already releasing 2020-focused ads. Majority Forward launched attack ads against vulnerable Republican Senators over the government shutdown in mid-January and conservative groups such as Committee to Defend the President are already making independent expenditures in support of Trump.

The 2018 cycle just ended, but 2020 is already very much underway, setting a new standard that could extend to future election cycles.  

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