Most expensive midterms in history set several spending records

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Rep. Beto O’Rourke (R-Texas) lost his bid for U.S. Senate in 2018, but he shattered fundraising records in the process. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

From start to finish, and at every level of the ballot, the 2018 election cycle set campaign finance records — often by huge margins.

First, the topline numbers: 2018 will prove to be by far the most expensive midterm on record. CRP estimates the final cost at $5.2 billion, a 35 percent increase over 2014 in nominal dollars. Part of the reason for that is a truly staggering increase in outside spending, which at $1.31 billion is up 61 percent over 2014. The week before the election, this cycle also surpassed 2012’s outside spending ($1.29 billion) and is now the second-most expensive cycle ever — midterm or presidential — in terms of outside spending.

The first clue that the 2018 cycle would smash campaign finance records was 2017’s slew of special elections. The special election in Georgia’s Sixth District blew away the previous record for most expensive House race, and the Democrat Jon Ossoff set the record for most money raised ($30.4 million) by a House candidate in his losing effort.

In the general election, no House race matched the GA-06 special, but California’s 39th District, an open seat vacated by Republican Ed Royce, is now the most expensive non-special House election ever in terms of combined spending by candidates and outside groups. And California’s 48th District, featuring a competitive primary and then a top-target general election between incumbent Republican Dana Rohrabacher and Harley Rouda, is now the top non-special House election in terms of outside spending alone. Both races are still undecided pending the counting of mail-in ballots.

On the Senate side, the Texas race between incumbent Republican Ted Cruz and Democratic challenger Beto O’Rourke is the most expensive congressional election ever in terms of spending by candidates. O’Rourke himself now holds the record for the most money raised by a congressional candidate at $69.1 million — though Florida Senate hopeful Rick Scott is only a few hundred thousand dollars behind him and could overtake him when the final post-general FEC reports are filed. At $181.2 million, the still-undecided Florida Senate race is also the most expensive election ever in terms of combined candidate and outside spending when only the candidates who made it to the general election are included, narrowly surpassing 2016’s Pennsylvania Senate race ($179.5 million).

Several records for midterm spending by specific groups also shattered. The Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC closely tied to the GOP House leadership, spent $137.5 million, by far the most ever by a super PAC in a midterm and just short of the record for any cycle (held by Restore Our Future, which spent $142.1 million in support of Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign). It was also a big year for super PACs that spend the vast majority of their money backing a single candidate. The pro-Rick Scott New Republican PAC spent $29.5 million hammering Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), by far the most money spent by any group on a single congressional election.

The megadonors who fund those outside spending groups have been busy setting records as well. Miriam and Sheldon Adelson, who gave $113 million to federal candidates and groups, broke their own record for contributions by a household in a single cycle ($93.1 million in 2012). Hushang and Shahla Ansary became the biggest-ever donors to joint fundraising committees in a single cycle at $2.1 million — not surprising, since 2018 is only the second full cycle since the Supreme Court overturned the combined contribution limits for individual donors.

Unlike individual donations, PAC donations do not set new records every cycle because contribution limits to and from PACs do not increase with inflation. That said, one specific type of PAC did reach new heights: leadership PACs. These committees, which politicians establish to donate to their fellow partisans and increase their influence, gave nearly $51 million to federal candidates, barely beating out 2014’s total. And Majority Committee, the leadership PAC associated with House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), set the record for most donations to candidates by a leadership PAC in one cycle at nearly $2.3 million.

Note: All numbers cited above may increase further still. Candidates and most committees will have to file their post-general election reports with the Federal Election Commission by 12/6, covering financial activity from 10/18 through 11/26.

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