“There’s no question that in relative terms, those non-party numbers are going up at a much faster rate than the party numbers,” said Michael Malbin, executive director of the Campaign Finance Institute. “I think that it will mean that party-like spending will go into more amorphous networks, somewhat less disclosed, with many more different competing channels.”
In some hard-fought House and Senate contests, outside groups far outspent the parties. In the Virginia Senate race between former Govs. Tim Kaine (D) and George Allen (R), non-party groups spent close to $37 million by Nov. 5, according to the CFI. That’s more than double the $14.4 million the two major parties spent and more than the $30 million the two candidates spent combined.
In Florida’s 10th district contest between Republican Rep. Daniel Webster and his Democratic challenger, former Orlando police chief Val Demings, super PACs and other outside groups spent $4.2 million, more than the $4 million spent by the parties and candidates combined, according to the CFI.
The unlimited and often undisclosed campaign money overwhelmed voters in swing states with round-the-clock ads, and it prompted some candidates to call for a third-party spending truce.
In Massachusetts, GOP Sen. Scott Brown and Democratic challenger Elizabeth Warren pledged to pay a “penalty” to charity for every outside ad bought to help them.
The spike in undisclosed money prompted numerous complaints from watchdogs that such groups are violating election and tax laws. While conservatives hailed the wide-open spending rules as a victory for free speech, the unrestrained campaign spending is sure to fuel a fresh round of proposals to overhaul the system, from disclosure legislation to tighter tax regulations.
“Any time the regulated entities become less powerful, and the unregulated entities are stronger, it’s a sea change,” said Lisa Gilbert, director of Public Citizens’ Congress Watch.