Super PACs and dark money groups combined to outspend candidates in a record number of races in 2018

As Democrats and Republicans battled for dominance in both the House of Representatives and the Senate in 2018, super PACs and dark money groups collectively outspent the candidates’ own campaigns in a record-breaking 16 races, according to data provided to Issue One by the Center for Responsive Politics.

Control of the House and Senate for the next two years was determined by a small number of elections in 2018. Super PACs and dark money groups focused most of their spending in these races. Democrats needed a net gain of 23 seats to win a majority in the House and a net gain of two seats to win control of the Senate. Democrats ultimately flipped the House, but Republicans added one seat to their majority in the Senate.

The new data shows that candidates were outspent by outside groups in seven Senate races and nine House races. This amounted to more than half of the 13 competitive Senate contests and about 10 percent of the House races ranked as competitive by the Cook Political Report.

Non-candidate, non-party groups have now outspent candidates in 48 congressional races since the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, with one-third of that total occurring in 2018. This phenomenon occurred 11 times in 2016, and only once in 2010, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

“When outside groups are spending more than candidates are on their own campaigns, we’re in the danger zone,” said Issue One CEO Nick Penniman. “This is especially troubling because so much of this money purchases negative TV ads. A political system this broken means that fewer people consider running for office, good leaders retire early, and those who continue serving frequently spend too much of their time raising money. This startling development should worry Democrats, Republicans, and independents alike.”

Added Issue One Executive Director Meredith McGehee: “While raising the most money doesn’t necessarily guarantee victory on election night, no candidate wants to be outspent by outside groups and lose control of the messaging in their own campaign.” 

Both Democrats and Republicans Have Embraced Big-Money Outside Groups

Spending by super PACs and dark money organizations has been on the rise in recent years, with both Democrats and Republicans embracing big-money outside groups in an ever-escalating political arms race.

In fact, super PACs and dark money groups close to party leaders on both sides of the aisle played crucial roles in the 2018 spending frenzy that led to candidates being outgunned in so many races. 

These groups included super PACs such as the Republican-aligned Congressional Leadership Fund and Senate Leadership Fund as well as the Democrat-aligned House Majority PAC and Senate Majority PAC. They also included dark money groups such as Majority Forward and Patriot Majority USA, which were major drivers of the unprecedented surge of Democratic dark money in 2018.

Other big spenders in many of these races included Independence USA PAC, the super PAC bankrolled by billionaire former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the National Rifle Association, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Notably, Patriot Majority USA, the National Rifle Association, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce all rank among the top 15 dark money groups since the Citizens United decision, according to an Issue One analysis published in September.

By law, candidates are capped in how much money they can raise from any single individual donor — $2,700 per person per election, with the primary and general election counting as separate elections. Meanwhile, super PACs and dark money organizations may collect unlimited sums from donors. (Like candidates, super PACs are required to disclose their donors, while dark money groups are generally not required to publicly reveal their funders.)

In its 2010 Citizens United decision, the Supreme Court allowed corporations — including dark money groups organized as 501(c)(4) and 501(c)(6) nonprofit corporations — to spend without limit on political advertisements that overtly call for the election or defeat of federal candidates. These advertising expenditures cannot be coordinated with political candidates themselves, although candidates and their advisers may help these groups raise money without running afoul of laws that prohibit them from coordinating.

A separate federal court ruling in 2010 called SpeechNow v. Federal Election Commission allowed political committees that spend money independently of candidates to accept unlimited contributions from individuals, corporations, and labor unions to produce ads — which ushered in the super PAC era.

“Candidates running in competitive districts are likely to face an avalanche of outside money. But the prevalence and prominence of misleading attack ads sponsored by opaque organizations isn’t healthy for our republic,” said Issue One ReFormers Caucus Co-chair former Rep. Zach Wamp (R-TN). “Constituents want to know you are listening to them, not big-money donors and secretive special interest groups.”

Added fellow ReFormers Caucus Co-chair former Amb. Tim Roemer, a former Democratic congressman from Indiana: “As new reports convey everyday, America’s election security is being attacked from the outside by foreign adversaries and from the inside by special interests. The corrosive influence of big-money donors increases distrust in our electoral system and creates an unjust and unbalanced democracy.”

Read our full report for the breakdown of the 16 congressional races in which super PACs and dark money groups combined to outspend the candidates’ own campaigns during the 2018 election cycle, according to data provided to Issue One by the Center for Responsive Politics. This includes all spending during both primary and general elections.