A disturbing trend has emerged in our elections: Fewer and fewer races are truly competitive, but the ones that are see a surge of spending by outside groups.
As a result of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision and a related lower court ruling, outside groups are increasingly outspending candidates’ own campaigns, according to a new Issue One analysis of data from the Center for Responsive Politics.
Between 2010, when the Citizens United decision was handed down, and 2016, outside groups have outspent candidates in 31 congressional races.
The sums of money involved are staggering.
Overall, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, the 2016 presidential and congressional elections cost $6.4 billion. Outside groups — that is, super PACs and “dark money” groups — accounted for $1.4 billion of that sum, or roughly 22 percent of the total spending in the election.
A decade earlier, outside groups accounted for about 2 percent of the $2.9 billion spent during the 2006 midterm elections.
Unlike candidates, who are limited in how much money they can accept from any individual donor, super PACs and “dark money” groups have no limits on how much they can accept or how much they can spend.
In the landmark 1976 case Buckley v. Valeo, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected limitations on outside spending, based on the idea that spending that is “wholly” and “totally” independent from candidates is not corrupting. Yet the reality is that independent expenditures such as TV ads are often anything but independent.
As Issue One highlighted in our The Price of Power report, the threat of outside spending in elections often drives members of Congress fundraise dozens of hours each week, rather than focusing on their legislative duties.
Election observers currently expect about 50 U.S. House and U.S. Senate races to be highly competitive in 2018. Odds are that outside groups will outspend the candidates in at least one in five of these races — and possibly more.