POLITICS
09/18/2014 07:37 am ET Updated Sep 18, 2014

Surprise! House And Senate Fundraising Drops Ahead of 2014 Election, And Here's Why

Bill Clark via Getty Images

WASHINGTON -- It may come as a surprise, but politicians running for Congress have raised less money for November's midterm elections than they had raised at this point in the 2010 cycle.

According to data released Tuesday by the Federal Election Commission, congressional candidates pulled in $1.143 billion in the first 18 months of the current election cycle. That is down from $1.183 billion raised over the same time period in 2010. The 2014 total is also less than the $1.21 billion raised by congressional candidates in the first 18 months of 2012.

The funding drop comes after five straight election cycles in which the amount of money raised by congressional candidates at the 18-month mark had been higher than the amount raised in the previous cycle.

This curious decrease appears to be tied to another falling figure: the number of candidates running for Congress.

In 2010, there were 2,068 Americans who decided to run for a congressional office, whether in the House or the Senate. This was a huge increase from the nearly 1,500 candidates in 2008 and the 1,343 who ran in 2006. In the current election, the number of candidates fell back down to 1,607.

The change in the number of candidates corresponds to the waxing and waning of political activism inspired by the tea party movement, which rose in 2010 and slowed ahead of 2014, as mainstream Republican politicians increasingly embraced the tea party's ideas and language.

Data provided by the FEC bear this out. From the 2006 to the 2010 elections, the number of Republican candidates for both the House and the Senate rose by 100 percent, while Democrats saw only a 50 percent increase in Senate candidates and a drop of 50 candidates in House races.

The 2010 midterms were a good time to run as a Republican. In the end, the party picked up six Senate seats and gained control of the House by winning 63 more seats.

Along the way, the number of GOP challengers to Democratic House incumbents increased fourfold from 2006. Wealthy donors wanted a Republican majority and, reading the mood of the electorate, pumped $147 million into those challengers' races. This stands as the most money raised by a single party's crop of House challengers in one election cycle.

In 2010, there were also more open Senate seats to contest, leading to primary races on both sides. Fundraising in open-seat Senate races saw the biggest drop from that electoral cycle to this one: The two major parties have combined to raise $83 million less in open-seat races in 2014 so far than in 2010.

This year, neither party seems to have the wind at its back. While Republicans look like a lock to hold onto their House majority, the race for control of the Senate is currently a coin flip.

The money does not lean heavily one way or the other either. Both parties have increased their fundraising in the Senate battlegrounds: Democratic incumbent fundraising is up by more than $40 million from 2010, and Republican challenger fundraising has risen by more than $16 million. The increase largely reflects the intense competition for control of the Senate.

While overall fundraising for congressional candidates may be down, according to the FEC, spending is not. The candidates have spent $766.7 million in the first 18 months of the 2014 election, up by $10 million from 2010.

The surge in spending comes almost entirely from incumbents. In Senate races, Democratic incumbents have spent $36 million more in 2014 than in 2010. House Republicans have capitalized on their majority by spending $63 million more than in 2010.

Democratic Senate incumbents have been forced to lay out more money because these days the opposition's spending starts sooner in the electoral calendar. Conservative independent groups, a large number of whom do not disclose their donors, have blanketed the airwaves early in battleground states.

In turn, Senate Majority PAC, a Democratic group, has spent early and often to define Republican challengers before they can define themselves. So those GOP candidates have also increased their spending over 2010 by $2 million.

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