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The $4 Billion Election: Spending Records Shattered as Republicans Benefit from Late Cash Surge

Center for Responsive Politics predicts midterms could cost nearly $4 billion

WASHINGTON – This year’s federal election will obliterate spending records for a midterm contest, surpassing the previous high-water mark set in 2006 by about $1 billion, the Center for Responsive Politics predicts less than a week before voters cast their ballots.

Whereas the romanticism of 'one person-one vote' has long captured the imagination of US citizens, it becomes increasingly difficult to hide the enormous negative impact that shadow money plays on what is surely a fragile democracy. (Credit: Darren Hauck/Getty Images) That’s enough cash to run the city of Pittsburgh for two years. Buy every resident of Topeka a nice used car. Or treat each and every American to a Big Mac and fries.

And such record-breaking spending is largely fueled by the confluence of two powerful political forces. First, dozens of competitive, often contentious congressional campaigns are being waged, providing incentive for record spending. Second, recent federal court decisions have armed corporations, unions and ideological organizations with the firepower to spend as much as they want, whenever they want on political messages saying just about anything they want, no matter how scathing or partisan.

“We knew this election could make spending history, but the rate of growth is stunning,” said Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics and its website, OpenSecrets.org. “This kind of money in 2010 makes the 2000 presidential election – hardly a distant memory – look like a bargain at $3.1 billion. And tens of millions of dollars of it is now coming from organizations who, by law, need not disclose their donors. It’s now more difficult than ever for voters to determine whether the outside groups flooding their television and radio airwaves with political messages are doing so for any reason other than promoting their own, narrow set of special interests.”

Republicans have more quickly adapted to this new campaign finance landscape ahead of an election in which they’re angling to recapture the U.S. House of Representatives, if not the U.S. Senate, too. And their potential success at the polls may result in a marked shift in federal policy, painting the U.S. Capitol a bright shade of red after four years tinged with blue.

Identifiably conservative organizations are spending more than $2 on advertisements and other communications for every $1 liberal organizations do. While corporations are behind much of this money, many of these companies have skirted public scrutiny by laundering their cash through intermediary organizations, which often sport nondescript names and don’t immediately, if ever, reveal who funds them.

The three national Democratic party committees do enjoy slight fund-raising advantages over their Republican counterparts this election cycle. And in some of the cycle’s most competitive races, Democrats have built notable financial resources that remain the envy of their Republican opponents.

But nationwide, House Republican congressional candidates themselves have so far raised and spent more money through the middle of October than Democrats – in House races, raising $502 million to $461.5 million, and spending $407.3 million to $397.3 million.

In Senate races, Republicans are out-raising Democrats $400 million to $347 million, although Democrats have spent a tiny fraction more. A key factor in these realities: Major industries and special interest areas that had just months ago primarily bankrolled Democrats have suddenly flocked to the GOP – a phenomenon that the Center finds has only increased in speed as Election Day draws closer.

Conservatively, the current election cycle will cost $3.7 billion, the Center predicts, reaffirming an initial cost-of-election prediction from earlier this year. The Center now forecasts, however, that final spending numbers for the full cycle will likely flirt with the $4 billion mark.

As of today, the Center calculates that Republicans have raised $1.64 billion to Democrats’ $1.59 billion. These figures include money raised by candidates and parties, and the money reported by outside organizations. The party split for outside money include independent expenditures on behalf of or against Democrats or Republicans; electioneering communications based on the general ideological leanings of the organization; and receipts by 527 organizations that are not already included elsewhere.

Regardless of the final figures, they’ll be profoundly large: In 2006, the federal midterm election cost $2.85 billion, while in 2002, it cost $2.18 billion. The 1998 election cost just $1.61 billion. Races during the 2004 presidential election cycle are tallied at $4.14 billion – only a small fraction more than the predicted cost of the 2010 midterm cycle. The 2008 presidential election cycle, at nearly $5.3 billion, remains the most expensive overall.

The Center’s findings are largely based on fund-raising data reported to the Federal Election Commission into this month by all candidates for federal office, party committees, political action committees and federally focused 527 committees. This conservative estimate also includes independent expenditures on advertising and get-out-the-vote efforts by outside political action committees and other organizations to support and oppose candidates.

Read the Center for Responsive Politics' extended report here.

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