Known Money, Secret Money

OpenSecrets.org reported yesterday that on the whole, millionaire and billionaire self-financed candidates pretty much flopped in Tuesday’s elections. Four out of every five of the 58 federal-level candidates who spent more than $500,000 of their own money on their campaigns ended up losing in the primary or general election. Among those who lost their expensive gambles were former World Wrestling Entertainment CEO Linda McMahon, who spent more than $46 million on her Senate campaign in Connecticut and Carly Fiorina, who spent more than $5.5 million of her own money in her California Senate race.

And OpenSecret’s data doesn’t even count the most prominent big-spending loss this year, California’s Meg Whitman, who spent a whopping $141 million on her gubernatorial bid.

Self-financed candidates generally have a fairly dismal track record of winning elections—partly because some lack the political experience to pull off a successful campaign, partly because voters reject the idea of a person buying themselves political office. (The Washington Post and the American Prospect both looked into the self-funding paradox earlier this year).

So, you might conclude from this, money can’t buy you electoral love. But the data from other kinds of campaign spending tells a very different story.

Public Citizen reported Wednesday that spending by outside groups—like those we profiled in our After Citizens United report—had a huge impact on the outcome of elections throughout the country. In 58 of the 74 races in which power changed hands yesterday, the candidate who benefitted from the most outside spending also won their election, Public Citizen’s analysis found. Of course, the cause and effect can go both ways—special interests often back shoe-in candidates just to be in their good graces once they’re in office—but it’s undeniable that spending by outside groups really did make a difference in many close races.

The Chamber of Commerce alone promised to spend $75 million to influence this year’s elections…more than 90% of which had, as of the last reporting deadline, gone to support Republican candidates. The Chamber, like many of the pro-GOP power players in this election, spent millions of dollars of money from undisclosed sources to buy ads that often had very little to do with its real goals.

Polling shows that the vast majority of Americans really don’t like the idea of corporations and interest groups pouring money into elections…and also really don’t like it that outside groups don’t have to reveal the major sources of their money.

But not liking the idea of wealthy people or corporations or powerful special interest groups trying to buy elections isn’t much help when you’re seeing a convincing ad on TV from a group with a name like the “Commission on Hope, Growth, and Opportunity”—and have no way of finding out what the money and motivations behind the ad are.

When a candidate is bankrolling her own campaign, voters know what’s going on, and can go into the polling place knowing full well who’s most invested in that candidate’s success. When a candidate is backed by millions of dollars from shadowy interest groups, the equation gets more difficult. The money’s there, but it’s impossible to tell what that money is meant to buy. As PFAW’s Michael Keegan wrote in the Huffington Post last week, that system works great for candidates who back the interests of corporate America and the wealthiest citizens…but isn’t so great for those who don’t have fat bank accounts ready to help them out.

Interestingly, one candidate who invested heavily in his own campaign did notably well on Tuesday—Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, who beat incumbent senator Russ Feingold. Johnson invested more than $8 million in his campaign (almost twice as much as he received from individual contributors). But Johnson was also propped up by over a million dollars worth of ads paid for by out-of-state pro-corporate groups.
 

PFAW