WASHINGTON -- Tuesday's election will be remembered not only for the historic losses by the Democratic Party in the House, but also the unprecedented amount of outside spending that poured into races, thanks to the Supreme Court's landmark Citizen United decision. Indeed, Democratic Congressional Committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen attributed the GOP wave in part to the "record amount of secret money spent by right-wing outside groups turned this political storm into a category 3 political hurricane."
A new report from watchdog group Public Citizen largely bears out this observation that powerful independent expenditures may have played a significant role. Out of 74 contests in which power changed hands on Tuesday, outside spending benefited the winner in 58 races. Just 14 of the losing candidates received more help than their opponents from these groups.
"Outside undisclosed money provided a real advantage to successful candidates in this election," said Lisa Gilbert, deputy director of CongressWatch, a division of Public Citizen. "Secret contributions in political campaigns are a recipe for influence-buying corruption. The public deserves more information, and renewed battle to increase this sort of disclosure lies ahead in the next Congress."
Winning candidates in these races where power changed hands received, on average, $764,326 from outside groups (not including party committees), compared to $273,268 for the losing candidates.
The greatest disparity was in Illinois' Senate race. Kirk received $8 million more from outside groups than his Democratic opponent Alexi Giannoulias did. Similarly, in Pennsylvania, Republican Pat Toomey enjoyed a $5.3 million advantage from groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Club for Growth Action Fund over Democrat Joe Sestak.
In the 74 races examined by Public Citizen, only three shifted control from Republicans to Democrats. With these, the conclusions were split. In one race, the winner had an advantage in outside spending, in another the loser had the edge and in the third, outside spending played a very limited role.
One race that was still too close to call at the time this report went live was Colorado's Senate race, which Nancy Watzman of the Sunlight Foundation dubbed the "Wild West of political spending." "Everybody's going out to grab the biggest gun they can, and there's no sheriff around," she said.
Tens of millions of dollars poured into the Colorado race, with Republican Ken Buck having a slight advantage in terms of garnering more outside spending.
This independent expenditure money, combined with the candidates' own spending, produced an election unlike any ever seen in Colorado. "It's led to saturation advertising on every possible medium: radio, television, blogs and websites -- lots of social media," said Denver-based pollster Floyd Ciruli, who said that the race basically ended up at a standstill and a point where money could help "a little but not too much."
The bulk of outside spending this election came from just 10 powerful groups like the Chamber, American Crossroads, and the American Action Network. From these groups, money spent on behalf of Republicans outspent money for Democrats by $79.4 million to $28.5 million.
Overall, 59.9 percent of the outside funds in this election came from undisclosed sources, according to Public Citizen. As The Huffington Post reported, even when organizations did reveal their donors, it would end up being just one or two donors -- essentially a way for wealthy contributors to skirt federal giving limits.
The issue of outside spending campaigns isn't likely to go away just because the midterms are over. Complaints before the IRS and FEC are likely to drag on for years, and many of these independent expenditures have made clear that they're gearing up for 2012.