If the Republican Party was the big election-day loser, maybe the second biggest loser was outside spending groups such as Super Political Action Committees and so-called “dark money” non-profits that need not disclose their donors. In the presidential race and majority of the close races for Congress, there was an inverse relationship between who won and who got the most outside money.
Nowhere was this more apparent than in Illinois. In six hotly-contested congressional contests, Republican candidates received drastically more outside cash than Democrats. Yet the Democrat won five of these races.
Only in the 13th congressional district did the GOP prevail. And even there, Republican Rodney Davis is ahead just 1,287 votes over Democrat David Gill, who will not concede until the provisional ballots are counted.
After the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court Citizens United decision, these outside spending groups could suddenly spend unlimited sums of money so long as they did not directly coordinate with political campaigns.
So why were Super PACs and dark money groups not the difference makers that campaign finance watchdogs feared and an array of political observers anticipated?
Here are a few possible explanations:
* Tuning out the tube.
The lion’s share of Super PAC money went to negative TV ads and voters simply got sick of these ads. For example, of the $6.1 million in outside money directed to 8th congressional district incumbent Joe Walsh, a Republican, $4.8 million of this was legally filed as “oppose Duckworth.” That would be Walsh’s victorious Democratic challenger Tammy Duckworth. Just $1.3 million was filed as “support Walsh.”
Most of this $4.8 million went to a barrage of ads slamming Duckworth. Much of the media, including PI, covered more Walsh Super PAC money as a potentially auspicious sign for the incumbent. But the extra money often meant re-airing the same, or a similar, ad.
“The vast amount of money on TV ads was probably not very well spent,” says Meredith McGehee, policy director at the Washington, D.C.-based Campaign Legal Center. “There is a saturation point.”
* Some coordination was needed
In order to spend as much money as they wished, outside spending groups were prohibited from directly coordinating with their campaign. These rules were often derided as either unenforceable or not substantial. But they might have made a difference.
In the case of Walsh, the incumbent got millions from the Missouri-based Now or Never Group and other national outfits, such as the Texas-based Freedom Works Super PAC. “They did not calibrate their message properly,” David Morrison, deputy director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, said of these Super PACs. Part of the reason, Morrison says, is that they were unfamiliar with the local terrain.
Duckworth, by contrast, got millions through direct campaign fundraising. What this meant was meant a “real grassroots operation,” according to Duckworth spokesman Anton Becker, with “hundreds and hundreds of people” going door-to-door.
Becker claims that 8th congressional district voters were turned off by Walsh’s “dirty and dishonest ads.” Supposing Duckworth’s spokesman is correct, Walsh could not have legally told the Super PACs to call off the ads and instead spend their money on, for example, a get-out-the-vote operation.
* Voters Made Decisions Based On The Issues
The national Democratic and Republican parties clearly and substantially differed this year on the future of health care, Medicare, and what to do about the expiring Bush tax cuts. These contrasts were echoed early and often by Illinois congressional candidates on each side of the aisle.
Illinois Democrats supported the Affordable Care Act and retaining the Bush tax cuts except for the wealthiest two percent of Americans. Illinois Republicans more or less supported the Paul Ryan budget and retaining all the Bush tax cuts. Any ad that, ultimately, simply reiterated these positions had “diminishing returns,” as Morrison put it.
“To some degree the Republicans were wrong on the issues and no degree of spending could match the fact that the majority of Americans still didn’t agree with them,” McGehee says.
While outside spending did not swing this election, it could swing the next one as outside money groups review how they squandered their resources. “There is a lot of soul searching going on about how to use their tools more effectively,” Morrison says.
Also, big money donors, such as casino magnate Sheldon Adelson – who forked over fifty million dollars to outside conservative groups do not necessarily get nothing out of their investment.
“These big donors are going to be heard in Washington,” McGehee says. “All the Republicans are going to be more than happy to answer their calls.”