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What role did outside spending play in flipping seats?

The consumer advocacy group Public Citizen has released a crack report today called “Outside Job: Winning Candidate Enjoyed Advantage in Unregulated Third-Party Spending in 58 of 74 Party-Shifting Contests,” which attempts to make sense of what role, if any, new forms of outside money played in yesterday’s election. Measuring just the money spent by groups who formed as either Super PACs — in order to accept and spend unlimited amounts of disclosed cash — or Section 501(c) social welfare groups — which do not disclose their donors — the report concludes that winning candidates in elections where power shifted hands were buttressed by outside spending that eclipsed their opponents’ receipts by a ratio of nearly 2.8 to 1:

Winning candidates in elections in which power changed hands were aided by average spending of $764,326 by independent groups, while losing candidates were aided by average spending of $273,268, a ratio of nearly 2.8 to 1. The analysis deemed outside spending as aiding candidates if it either praised them or criticized their opponents. It does not include outside spending for primaries.

The most blatant disparities, the report notes, occurred in the tight Senate races in Illinois and Pennsylvania:

The Republican winners in the Pennsylvania and Illinois Senate races received by far the greatest advantage over their opponents in outside spending. In Illinois, Rep. Mark Kirk (R) benefited from nearly $8 million in spending over opponent Alexander Giannoulias, chiefly due to $5.6 million in anti-Giannoulias spending by Karl Rove’s American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS entities, and to $1.7 million in anti-Giannoulias spending by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. In total, Kirk enjoyed an advantage in outside spending of greater than 11 to 1.

In Pennsylvania’s Senate contest, victorious former Rep. Pat Toomey (R) enjoyed an advantage of nearly $5.3 million—a ratio of nearly 4 to 1—over Rep. Joe Sestak (D). Toomey was aided by $2.5 million in anti-Sestak spending by the Club for Growth Action Fund, an independent expenditure committee of the organization of which Toomey previously served as president. Also spending more than $1 million against Sestak were the U.S. Chamber of Commerce ($1.7 million) and the Republican Jewish Coalition ($1.1 million).

When the independent expenditures of the traditional party committees like the NRSC and the DSCC are added in, however, outside spending in these races becomes a lot more equitable. And political scientists will reasonably ask whether the outside spending provided momentum for Republican victories or whether the impetus to give cash to conservative outside groups was simply a reflection of that pre-existing political momentum.

The report remains worthwhile, however, because we haven’t seen a swing in the House this big since the 1930s — and many would argue that the surge in unlimited outside spending has dramatically reduced the power of incumbency. If you believe that corporate and deep-pocketed donors are simply more likely to give to Republicans, then you might also conclude that Democrats will not enjoy the same favor when they are out of office. But both parties have been the beneficiaries of corporate PACs and well-to-do individuals in the past, making it equally as likely that the new normal of outside spending will cause the House to behave increasingly like a seesaw, flipping between parties every two years. Whether that’s a good or a bad phenomenon, on the other hand, is a question for the political scientists…

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