Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.), pictured above, and her 2016 Republican opponent, Rep. Joe Heck, spent nearly $31 million in their race -- but super PACs and other outside groups laid out more than $88 million. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
By: Niv Sultan
On her way to winning a Nevada Senate seat in 2016, Democrat Catherine Cortez Masto spent almost $19 million; her Republican opponent, then-Rep. Joe Heck, paid out nearly $12 million. Their combined spending of over $30 million was among the highest in the nation. Still, it was eclipsed by investments in the race by outside spending groups, which blew past $88 million.
Their race was no outlier. In the 2016 cycle, there were 27 congressional races in which outside spending topped the outlays of the candidates. In those contests, candidates spent a combined total of just under $367 million — and outside groups spent more than $683 million.
Candidate spending includes all primary and general candidates in any given race.
Seven of these 27 contests were for Senate seats, meaning that outside groups outspent candidates in about one-fifth of the cycle's 34 Senate races. Because Senate seats, being fewer, are more coveted and influential than House seats, and because candidates have to run statewide, Senate races are usually pricier; the most expensive House race wouldn't have even cracked the Senate's 10 most expensive.
Now, 27 races where super PACs and other outside groups surpassed candidate spending isn't a record: In 2012, there were 32 such contests; 2014 saw 28.
What's skyrocketed, though, is the difference separating the outlays of candidates and groups in those races. From a total of less than $100 million in 2012, the gap soared to more than $316 million in 2016, even though the number of contests in this category shrank. The difference last cycle was the largest in history, and it came with the largest outside spending total of all time: nearly $1.7 billion spent on all federal races. Outside spending was roughly double candidate spending, or more, in 10 House and Senate races.
Leading the pack was the battle between sitting GOP Sen. Pat Toomey and Democrat Katie McGinty in Pennsylvania. The fact that the pair was outspent by other groups pushing for or against them was not for lack of trying on their part: Their combined $47 million spent was the second-greatest total of the cycle, behind only the nearly $61 million put up for the Florida Senate seat by Republican Sen. Marco Rubio and then-Rep. Patrick Murphy, a Democrat.
But the Pennsylvania race's outside spending total of more than $119 million was the largest amount for any congressional race ever, and 226 percent more than the candidates put in. Toomey and McGinty were roughly equal beneficiaries of those investments. Among the race's big spenders were Senate Majority PAC, a Democratic super PAC that spent upwards of $19 million, and Senate Leadership Fund, its Republican equivalent, which spent over $15 million. The two groups — offshoots of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and the National Republican Senatorial Committee, respectively — injected a total of almost $118 million into the six Senate races leading the list.
Overall, 29 super PACs threw cash into the Toomey-McGinty contest, for a total of nearly $72 million. Organizations that don't have to disclose their donors — 501(c)s, which are politically active tax-exempt nonprofits — were more plentiful, with 32 reporting spending in Pennsylvania; but their outlays totaled only about $21 million.
Before 2004, candidate spending was never topped by outside groups. In 2008, five races defied that norm. That went to 12 in 2010. By the end of 2012, outside spending groups surpassed the candidates in 32 races.
That was the first full cycle after the Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United catalyzed massive growth in outside spending by putting independent expenditures, which aren't coordinated with a candidate's campaign, squarely in the realm of free speech.
Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen, attributed the post-2012 drop in the number of races where outside groups dominated in part to the changing strategy of super PACs: Some are not focusing as heavily on buying costly TV advertising time as they may have in the past.
"Many super PACs have found that spending heavily on television campaign ads has not been paying off as expected," he wrote in an email. As a result, "many super PACs have turned toward assuming traditional campaign roles, such as field work, get-out-the-vote activity, and opposition research, rather than solely focusing on expensive TV ads."
In 2016, for instance, screenwriter and director Joss Whedon's Save the Day super PAC produced videos centered largely around motivating voters to go to the polls. CARLY for America, the super PAC backing GOP presidential candidate Carly Fiorina, set up town hall meetings for her and did other work that campaigns normally undertake.
Another contributing factor could be that fewer congressional races are viewed as highly competitive — and super PACs and other groups see little reason to spend when there's not a decent chance of helping carry their side to victory.
"There are only a few slivers of America that are still evenly divided between the two parties," said David Wasserman, House editor and political analyst for The Cook Political Report. "Most of the country is a landslide for one side or the other, and that means that we have a very narrow band of competitive congressional seats. We’ve seen a 56 percent decline in the number of competitive congressional seats between 1997 and 2017."
Compare The Cook Political Report's race ratings in 2012 versus four years later: As of early October 2012, the group listed 25 House races and 10 Senate races as toss-ups, for a total of 35. In late September 2016, on the other hand, it classified only 16 House and seven Senate races as toss-ups, totaling 23.
How this will play out going forward is anybody's guess. At the moment, Cook has no 2018 Senate races in its toss-up column. But that's bound to change — and meanwhile, the big-spending super PACs and other groups can refill their warchests.