In Defying the Odds, we discuss congressional elections as well as the presidential race. Campaign finance is a big part of the story.
Money does not always mean success in elections, but it sure seemed to help in the 2018 midterms. And nothing seemed to help the money flow more than having majority party control of both legislative chambers at stake in an election that both sides saw as being of historic importance.
These statements are based on an analysis by the Campaign Finance Institute (CFI) of independent expenditures (IEs) in House and Senate races through Election Day, combined with the candidates' receipts through October 17 (the most recent information now available). Both sets of data were viewed through the lens of last Tuesday's election results. For details, see the tables described and linked below. Here are some key highlights.
HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES
Democrats made a net gain of at least thirty seats in the House (not counting about a dozen still considered too close to declare a winner at the time of this writing.) In twenty of those races, Democratic challengers defeated sitting GOP incumbents. (The other gains were in formerly Republican-held open seats.) In the 42 years covered by CFI's historical campaign finance tables, successful challengers have only rarely spent as much (on average) as the incumbents they beat. This year they will. As of October 17 - the period covered by the candidates' most recent filings with the Federal Election Commission (FEC) - successful Democratic challengers had raised an average of $4.6 million to $3.7 million by the defeated incumbents. To put these numbers in perspective, the average winner of a House seat in 2016 spent $1.5 million.
But there is more to the story than the candidates. CFI also reviewed independent expenditure (IE) reports filed with the FEC through Election Day. (Because spenders have to report their IEs to the FEC within 24 hours, these reports should be nearly complete.) In the races with defeated incumbents, the incumbents' supporters spent an average of $3.9 million in IEs to help their candidates. This was more than the incumbents raised for their own campaigns (see Table 1). Historically, it seems like a very big number. However, it was less than what was happening on the other side. Successful Democratic challengers were helped by an average of $5.2 million in IEs. This was a $1.3 million advantage over the incumbents, and it was on top of the $900,000 advantage in their candidate receipts.
A similar pattern prevailed in the 19 open-seat contests that were decided by 55% or less of the two-party vote (see Table 2). In these races, the Democratic winners raised an average of $3.6 million and had another $4.1 million in supportive IEs. Their defeated opponents had only $1.6 million in candidates' receipts and $2.0 million in supportive IEs. This was almost a $4 million advantage for the Democrats per candidate.
In the close open-seat races that the Democrats lost (see Table 2), Democratic candidates again raised twice the amount as the Republicans ($2.8 million to $1.4 million). But in these races, the pro-Republican IEs doubled the pro-Democratic IEs ($2.6 million to $1.3 million.) With only $1.3 million in IEs for the Democratic losers in this category, and more than $4 million for the Democratic winners, this suggests that the pro-Democratic money was more effectively targeted on fewer races than the money being spent to support Republicans.
With so few seats up in any given year, it is difficult to talk about patterns. However, it does appear that the average winners will have spent significantly more than their counterparts in any previous year. The challenger-incumbent balance in the seats that flipped parties paints a more complicated picture in the Senate than in the House (seeTable 3). For example, most of the successful Republican Senate challengers raised less money than their incumbent Democratic opponents. This was unlike the House challengers of 2018, but more like the historical norm. (We should note that this does not include Florida, which is subject to a recount and where the Republican challenger did raise more than the Democratic incumbent. It also does not include Mississippi, which is headed toward a runoff.) In contrast with the three clearly successful GOP challengers, the only successful Democratic challenger (in Nevada) raised more than the Republican she beat. IEs by both political parties tended to focus on the most competitive Senate races.
As noted in a CFI release just before the election, IEs in congressional elections have gone up substantially between 2016 and 2018. In the 2018 Senate elections (see Table 5), six races saw IEs of $50 million or more, compared with four in 2016. Eleven races had $10 million or more in IEs in 2018, compared with nine in 2016. In the 11 races with $10 million or more, the total IEs roughly equaled the candidates' receipts. In the party versus non-party balance, IEs by the formal party committees and party leadership Super PACs exceeded the IEs by non-party entities.
With majority party control of the House at stake in 2018 (after not being at stake in 2016) the level of IEs in House elections soared (see Table 6). In 2018, 73 races experienced $1 million or more in IEs. In 2016, there were 40. There were 41 House races with $5 million or more in IEs in 2018, compared to 22 in 2016. In these races, the spending on IEs ($441 million) cumulatively came to more than the candidates’ receipts as of their final pre-election reports ($350 million).
Table 1: 2018 House Incumbent/Challenger Races, Candidates' Receipts and Independent Spending by Election Margin.
Table 2: 2018 House Open Seat Candidates' Receipts and Independent Spending by Election Margin.
Table 3: 2018 Senate Incumbent/Challenger Races, Candidates' Receipts and Independent Spending by Election Margin.
Table 4: 2018 Senate Open Seat Candidates' Receipts and Independent Spending by Election Margin.
Table 5: 2018 Senate General Election Races by Total Amount of Independent Spending
Table 6: 2018 House General Election Races by Total Amount of Independent Spending