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This is Not What Democracy Looks Like: Big Money Floods Midterm Election Races

More than eight years after the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision opened the floodgates for secret corporate money to flow into our elections, hundreds of millions of dollars from Super PACs and other outside groups are pouring into the tightest U.S. Congressional races.

A Public Citizen analysis finds that the vast majority of outside spending is flowing to the most competitive races, magnifying the impact of outside money. In 14 out of 39 races rated as a “tossup” by the Cook Political Report as of Oct 22, outside spending, excluding party spending, even exceeds the candidates’ own spending.

Among the 81 battleground races – those ranked by the Cook Political Report as “tossup,” “lean Democratic” or “lean Republican” – 17 have now seen outside spending exceed candidate spending as of this week.  The analysis also found that, of nearly $715 million in outside spending this cycle as of Oct. 22, about $565 million, or nearly 80 percent, is going to the 81 closest races.

To compile our analysis, Public Citizen crunched data from the Center for Responsive Politics on outside spending, including unlimited spending from super-PACs, 501(c) nonprofits and other donors, in the most competitive House and Senate races ranked by the Cook Political Report. The data does include some traditional regulated PAC spending, for which contributions are capped at $5,000 per year.

The analysis found that 59 percent of outside spending, or nearly $421.5 million, went to the 39 races categorized by the Cook Political Report as a “tossup.” The analysis also found that an additional $143.2 million went to the 42 races rated as leaning toward Democrats or Republicans.

1 All Outside Spending All $714,744,525 100%
2 Outside Spending in tight races 81 $564,658,094 79%
3 Tossup 39 $421,502,194 59%
4 Lean Dem 17 $90,964,028 13%
5 Lean GOP 25 $52,191,872 7%

Outside spending in 2018 midterms has already exceeded 2014 levels and will be the highest-ever for a midterm election. Republicans are leading in outside spending, as nearly $366 million has been spent to support Republicans or oppose their rivals, with nearly $323 million in support Democrats or against their opponents. As of Oct 22, outside spending now exceeds candidates’ own spending, including some party spending, in 31 races, the highest number for a midterm election, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

The analysis underscores the growing influence of outside spending groups in U.S. of elections in the wake of the Supreme Court’s ruling that these spending groups are by their nature independent of candidates and political parties. Individuals and organizations alike can spend as much as they want to support candidates as a result of this ill-considered decision that struck down the law prohibiting corporations and unions from spending money from their treasuries to influence elections. The decision led to the advent of super PACs and 501(c) groups that may accept unlimited contributions and use them to influence elections as long as these outside groups do not coordinate with candidates, though their independence is often suspect, as Public Citizen has previously written.

“This is the world Citizens United made,” said Public Citizen President Robert Weissman. “Outside spending is dominating the close election races, empowering the superrich and drowning out the voices of regular voters and the candidates themselves. This is not what democracy looks like, but fixing this problem will require overturning Citizens United.”