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In Defense of Obsessive Coverage of Outside Group Spending

Democrats have raised more money than Republicans, as stories in both The New York Times and Politico point out today. It’s no secret among those tracking

Anita Barnes
Last updated: Jul 31, 2020 | Oct 27, 2010

Democrats have raised more money than Republicans, as stories in both The New York Times and Politico point out today. It’s no secret among those tracking political spending, but the news could come as a surprise to some readers who have closely followed the coverage of reporters (including yours truly) of the rise of outside groups making large independent expenditures in the midterm elections. I’ve taken pains to note, when appropriate, that while GOP-leaning outside groups are outspending Democrat-leaning groups by as much as 6 to 1, those margins are merely offsetting the big advantage Democrats hold this year when it comes to traditional candidate and party fundraising.

But coming up with overall spending totals is not an easy or foolproof task. Individual candidate reports (which track the kind of fundraising that Democrats are leading in) only cover their efforts through mid-October, notes the Times, while issue advertisements (which Republican-backing groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce are spending loads of money on) only have to be reported to the Federal Election Commission in the last 60 days before an election.

Regardless, outside spending is still worth focusing on for a number of reasons. For one, it is new money — not just in the sense that it is a new phenomenon (though it is, in part), but in the sense that much of it can be considered additional to the money that traditionally flows into campaigns. That’s because Section 501(c) nonprofits and Super PACs have become outlets for wealthy donors and corporations whose contributions would in the past have been capped at $2,400 per candidate and $30,400 for the national parties. In other words, the $7 million donated by homebuilder Bob Perry to the conservative group American Crossroads to advocate directly on behalf of federal candidates would not have been money spent in a previous election cycle.

Second, the money spent by outside groups hasn’t been spread out evenly. It’s not surprising that in a year when Democrats dominate both chambers of Congress, their individual candidates would collectively raise more money than their relatively unknown Republican challengers. Yet when it comes to key contests, outside interest groups have been able to pour money into races at an unheard-of pace, spending nearly $25 million in the Senate race in Colorado and $17.5 million in the one in Pennsylvania, for instance.

This kind of spending has almost invariably favored Republicans, and it’s even more pronounced in a number of House races, where a few hundred thousand dollars can make a big difference:

For instance, the war on the airwaves in the district of embattled Democratic freshman Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick in Arizona is essentially between Kirkpatrick and three outside groups who have spent a combined $1.4 million attacking her. Her opponent, Paul Gosar, has only put up $200,000 worth of ads.

“Fact-checking our opponent is a full-time job, but we’ve spent even more time fact-checking his special interest backers,” said Carmen Gallus, Kirkpatrick’s campaign manager. “These outside groups are not being held accountable for coming in and lying to the folks in our district.”

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