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The Sad Story of the Most Expensive Midterm Election Ever

The 2014 Elections just cost a mind-blowing $4 BILLION. How could this have happened? Here are four takeaways from the data.

1. Outside spending: $771.5 million

The sheer amount of cash targeting a relatively small number of races is staggering.

In total, political parties, super PACs and dark money groups have accounted for $771.5 million worth of independent expenditures. Just 11 Senate races accounted for 55 percent of all that outside spending. That’s out of 475 elections this cycle for congressional offices.

Voters in those 11 states have been hammered by negative ads — the modus operandi of most outside political players. At publication, around $574 million (74 percent) of third-party groups’ direct advocacy has gone to negative spending compared to $188 million positive.

2. Dark money: $145 million

With partisan deadlock at the Federal Election Commission and the Internal Revenue Service holding off on issuing new rules for politically-active nonprofits, anonymous political giving has continued to flourish.

The typology of shadow money groups is continually changing — we’ve seen LLC’s, 501(c)4 social welfare organizations and 501(c)6 trade groups — but the money has trended inexorably upward as more donors on the left and right choose to remain in the shadows.

These midterms have seen $145 million in direct advocacy by such groups. Indications are that figure will edge upwards over the next few days.

Nowhere has seen more dark money than the Colorado Senate race. Some $35 million — or more than a third of the total spending in the race — has come in the form of money that can’t be traced to its source.

While those numbers aren’t small, they likely greatly understate the total spent by these groups on politics. Outside the 60-day pre-election window when the Federal Election Commission requires reports for any communication mentioning or depicting a candidate for office, most dark money groups’ activities never have to be reported.

The only way to track those buys are through TV contracts, though a lack of bulk data and haphazard rules for reporting keeps most of that information outside of the public’s view.

3. Political fundraisers: 3,409

Politicians hit up donors for campaign contributions just about any chance they get, whether that’s through emails or fundraising events. Sunlight’s Political Party Time project, which tracks political fundraisers and the politicos and lobbyists who attend them, got wind of 3,409 parties during this cycle, with a chunk of them benefiting the candidates running for Senate in hot races.

In Kentucky, where Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes initially seemed to have a shot at toppling Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell, big names from the Democratic Party threw their weight behind the Grimes campaign. Former President Bill Clinton headlined a luncheon in Louisville in February andanother one in Lexington in August. Hillary Clinton also lent her name to a fundraiser last month. Overall, Party Time shows that Grimes had 32 fundraisers to McConnell’s 21.

Heavy-hitters in the Democratic Party also came out for Rep. Bruce Braley, who is running for Iowa’s open Senate seat. Bill Clinton headlined Braley’s annual Bruce, Blues & BBQ event last Saturday in Waterloo. But the Republican in that race, Joni Ernst, has also benefited from her party’s star power, with fundraisers for her campaign with former presidential candidate Mitt Romney, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis. During the summer, a handful of Republican women senators headlined an event for Ernst in D.C., with admission starting at $500 a head.

Party Time has records of 30 fundraisers benefiting candidates in the North Carolina Senate race, with 11 for Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan and 19 for her Republican challenger, state Rep. Thom Tillis. The GOP has thrown a lot of support behind Tillis, who was feted twice this year at the National Republican Senatorial Committee’s headquarters on Capitol Hill: once in March with a handful of senators, and another in September with the likes of Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas, Orrin Hatch of Utah and John McCain of Arizona.

The suddenly tight race in Kansas hasn’t seen as much fundraising action as other races, quite possibly because Republican Sen. Pat Roberts was considered a lock once he won his tough primary battle — but then the Democrat in the race dropped out, which allowed for a two-man matchup between Roberts and Independent Greg Orman. Roberts kicked off his 2014 campaign in March 2013 with a D.C. fundraiser where tickets capped out at $5,000 per PAC. The Roberts campaign threw a luncheon in Wichita with Jeb Bush at the end of September, where seats at the head table went for $2,600. Orman, for his part, threw a party hosted by Jonathan Soros – the son of billionaire and Democratic donor George Soros – in Manhattan in October. The invite suggested that individuals give $2,600 and couples throw down $5,200, the maximum legal limit.

4.Post-election election spending: Already underway

Louisiana and Georgia, the sites of two hotly contested Senate races, are also likely to have the distinction of holding the longest running election season in the country. If no candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote, both states mandate runoff elections. That means the winners may not be decided until early December in Louisiana or January in Georgia’s case. How likely is it? Major political spenders have already inked agreements for air time after Nov.4.

Neither party is ceding ground in the Bayou State, where Political Ad Sleuth has picked up recent five-figure contracts by both the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and National Republican Senatorial Committee.

This post was originally published as an edition of Sunlight Foundations’ “Campaign Intelligence” — a recurring series on candidates, campaigns and elections in which Sunlight’s Reporting Group highlights interesting stories from their data analysis tools.

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