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Blue Wave of Money Propels 2018 Election to Record-Breaking $5.2 Billion in Spending

"Whether it's a blue wave or a red wave, one thing is certain: A wave of money is surging toward Election Day, much of it coming from the wealthiest donors targeting this year's most competitive races."

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The Center for Responsive Politics projects that more than $5.2 billion will be spent the 2018 election cycle. (Photo: Shutterstock)

The Center for Responsive Politics projects that more than $5.2 billion will be spent this election cycle, making it the most expensive midterm election ever by a wide margin.

With less than two weeks before election day, $4.7 billion has already been spent by candidates, political parties and other groups such as PACs, super PACs and nonprofits. Prior to this election cycle, no midterm election had surpassed more than $4.1 billion in spending when adjusted for inflation.

The overall estimated cost of the 2018 election would represent a 35 percent increase over the 2014 cycle in nominal dollars, the largest increase in at least two decades.

“The significance of this election is clear. But whether it’s a blue wave or a red wave, one thing is certain: A wave of money is surging toward Election Day, much of it coming from the wealthiest donors targeting this year’s most competitive races,” said Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics.

 

While Republican candidates are raising funds at record levels, the huge uptick in spending is driven primarily by unprecedented Democratic fundraising. Democratic candidates are projected to spend more than $2.5 billion this cycle, while Republicans are expected to spend approximately $2.2 billion.

Democratic House hopefuls have raised more than $951 million, crushing their Republican opponents’ $637 million haul. Things are closer in the Senate—$513 million to $361 million—but Democrats are still ahead.

In every kind of competitive race—even those in red districts—Democrats are either outraising Republicans or keeping pace.

For example, in 27 House races rated “Likely R” by Cook Political Report, Democrats are keeping up in fundraising, collecting $1.95 million on average to Republicans’ $2 million.

In 29 House races labeled “toss up” that are currently held by a Republican, Democratic candidates raised an average of $5.5 million, dwarfing the Republicans’ $3 million average.

Democrats outraised Republicans in every quarter, and the most recent pre-general filing period—Oct. 1 through Oct. 17—was no different. Republicans were outraised $126 million to $82.5 million. For the first time in a decade, Blue will outraise Red.

“Whether you’re looking at donations from women, large donors, small donors, dark money groups, parties, or unions, the Democrats are seeing incredible success in fundraising this cycle,” said Sarah Bryner, research director at the Center for Responsive Politics. “Whether that money will translate into success on November 6th is an open question, given that money—while essential—is by no means the only factor governing electoral outcomes.”

Women, out-of-state and small donors fuel Democratic fundraising eruption

Democratic candidates have benefited from an unparalleled level of enthusiasm from female donors. Democrats running in the general election have raised $308 million from female donors, compared to approximately $90 million for Republicans.

Female Democratic Senate candidates—who are mostly made up of incumbents—hauled in an average of $5.3 million in contributions from women, accounting for 48 percent of their fundraising.

Each of the seven most popular Senators among women donors is a female Democrat. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) headlines the list with 56 percent of her contributions coming from women. Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) performed the worst with female donors of any major candidate, with 18 percent of his campaign cash coming from women.

On the House side, Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) collected a candidate-high 63 percent of his contributions from women. Not a single Republican cracks the top 10 for Senate or House candidates when it comes to the percentage of funds from female donors.

Republican men running for House collected the lowest percentage of their money from female donors—24 percent.

Small donors, too, have been an advantage for Democrats. Among House candidates, 16 percent of contributions to Democrats come from individuals and total less than $200—considered a small individual contribution—compared to 8 percent of House Republicans’ funds.

Senate Democrats collect a whopping 27 percent of their money from small individual contributions, again doubling up Republicans (13 percent).

In the pre-general filing period, a mammoth 44 percent of donations to Democratic Senate hopefuls came from small contributions, adding up to $22 million.

Democrats’ success with their online fundraiser ActBlue has led to more small contributions, as well as a base of voters that is more than willing to donate to out-of-state candidates.

In terms of itemized individual contributions, Senate Democrats received 60 percent of their funds—nearly $220 million—from out-of-state donors. Democrats in the House got 45 percent of their funds from out-of-state.

 

Republican House incumbents are getting significantly more money from out-of-state than challengers—37 percent to 25 percent—while the trend is reversed for Democratic House candidates (49 percent out-of-state for challengers and 35 percent for incumbents).

Educators, health professionals, retired people make a splash

Individual contributors that list themselves as “retired” spent more than $298 million supporting candidates, parties and outside groups, nearly double what they spent in 2014. In total, 53 percent of funds coming from retired individuals and groups representing them went toward supporting Democrats.

Those in the education industry spent big this cycle to the tune of $71 million, 88 percent of which went to Democratic candidates. The sector spent just $34.4 million in 2014, with a smaller 74 percent of the money going to Democrats.

Health professionals also made a splash by spending double their 2014 total—approximately $140 million—with 57 percent aiding Democrats.

The Securities & Investment industry has spent at least $100 million more than in 2014 and has favored Democrats over Republicans—52 to 46 percent—for the first midterm election cycle since 2006.

Contributions from several industries—including the liberal Public Sector Unions and the conservative Oil & Gas industry—either declined or flatlined when compared with the 2014 election.

Mega donors spend mega money

Sheldon and Miriam Adelson are the biggest spenders so far this cycle, shelling out more than $113 million in support of Republican candidates. It’s the most the Las Vegas couple has spent in an election cycle, surpassing the $93 million they spent in 2012.

Tom Steyer comes in second place with nearly $51 million committed to helping Democrats. The billionaire environmentalist is not spending like he was in 2014 and 2016, when he was the top overall mega donor.

According to FEC data, Michael Bloomberg has so far fallen short of his promised $100 million in contributions to help Democrats win Congress. Still, his $38 million in support of Democrats is nothing to scoff at.

Lesser-known billionaire Richard Uihlein and his wife Elizabeth have spent more than $39 million in support of Republicans, good for third-most among mega donors.

Crucial races draw millions in outside spending, dark money

Approximately $1.1 billion has been spent by outside groups to influence the 2018 general election, including $571 million on House races.

CRP projects that Democrats and liberal outside groups will have spent 44 percent more money for their congressional efforts by the end of this election cycle compared to four years ago. Republican and conservative growth in spending, however, is projected to rise by only 21 percent since 2014.

Five tightly-contested Senate races, in Nevada, Florida, Indiana, Missouri, and Arizona have seen more than $50 million in outside spending, as groups race to air negative ads.

Thirty-five congressional races have drawn more than $10 million from outside groups. House races are reaching double-digit millions in outside spending—more than $15 million has been spent in California’s 25th District, California’s 48th District and Washington’s 8th District.

In 34 congressional races, outside spending outpaces the money spent by all candidates.

Negative television advertising makes up the brunt of outside spending. More than $34 million has been spent in opposition of Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), while nearly $30 million has gone against Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.).

The Congressional Leadership Fund (CLF) super PAC has taken the lead for Republican House candidates, spending nearly $123 million, approximately $109 million of which accounts for negative advertising against more than 50 Democratic House candidates.

Spending from “dark money” groups—groups that do not disclose their donors with the FEC—is down this cycle, with nearly $128 million spent. Though outside money was much lower overall in 2014, dark money spending was higher, nearly reaching $178 million.

Majority Forward is the top dark money spender so far, shelling out more than $43 million to support Democratic Senate candidates.

The Tennessee and Florida Senate races are taking on the most dark money influence, with more than $10 million being spent in each race, mostly against the Republican candidates.

Though non-disclosed, dark money funding is down, outside spending from groups that fully disclose their donors is also down from the 2016 election—57.4 percent from 72.2 percent. The percentage of funds from “partially-disclosed” groups—which either don’t reveal all of their donors or take money from dark money groups—has risen to 31 percent from 15 percent in 2016.

The high levels of partial disclosure suggest that dark money is not disappearing, but rather is being funneled through super PACs and other outside spending groups that give the appearance of disclosing their donors.

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