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Billionaires Dominate Campaign Spending, Analysis Shows

A small subset of elite donors are dominating midterm spending, including former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)

This midterm's price tag will hit $3.7 billion, according to the latest projection from the Center for Responsive Politics, with outside groups and billionaires playing a larger role than ever while small contributors dwindle in number.  

Despite costing only slightly more than the previous midterms in 2010, according to a CRP analysis released Wednesday, this year’s elections will feature more outside spending; a bigger role for large donors; less candidate spending and fewer contributions from small donors. In 2010 total spending hit $3.63 billion, compared with the $3.67 billion that CRP predicts for 2014.  

The increasingly dominant outside players “take an already elite group" of political donors "and distill it even further,” said CRP Executive Director Sheila Krumholz on releasing the center’s latest projections. The center calculates that only .02 percent of the nation’s estimated 310 million Americans make political contributions of $2,600 or more.  

An even smaller subset of elite donors are dominating the midterms, CRP’s analysis shows, with such billionaires as environmentalist Tom Steyer and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg shoveling tens of millions into unrestricted super PACs. Steyer has given $73.7 million, much of it to his Democrat-friendly environmental super PAC NextGen Climate Action, and Bloomberg has given $20 million to gun safety and other groups. Just the top 20 individual donors to outside groups have shelled out a combined $168.6 million in this cycle, CRP found.  

Though Democrat-friendly donors such as Steyer and Bloomerg top this year’s billionaire contributor list, and the pro-Democrat Senate Majority PAC is the biggest-spending super PAC so far, Republicans will still spend more money than Democrats overall, CRP projects. Republican candidates, party committees and outside groups will spend $1.75 billion, while their Democratic counterparts will spend $1.64 billion. The top conservative donor to outside groups this year is Paul Singer of the Elliott Management hedge fund, who has given $9.3 million.  

Republicans will also spend far more undisclosed money than Democrats, according to CRP. Among outside groups that do not disclose their donors, including politically active tax-exempt advocacy groups and trade associations, Republican-friendly organizations will outspend pro-Democratic players by $111.7 million to $29.7 million, CRP projects.  

“The big difference is secrecy. Team 'red' prefers it,” Krumholz said.  

Together, CRP projects outside groups will spend $689.3 million in this election, with $329 million of it coming from Republican-aligned organizations and $314.6 million from Democrat-focused groups. These projections, moreover, do not even include “issue” advertisements that fall completely outside the disclosure rules, which CRP estimates will add well more than $100 million to overall spending. The tens of millions spent by such conservative advocacy groups as Americans for Prosperity, underwritten by the billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch and their allies, fall into this category.  

Other highlights from the CRP projections include:

  • ŸDisclosed outside spending already totals $480 million, or 13 percent of this cycle’s total. That’s a 66 percent increase over the 2010 elections, when outside spending hit $309 million, or 8.5 percent of the total.
  • ŸWall Street continues to dominate, with financial services donors giving $100.8 million, more than any other industry. Most of the candidate money — 62 percent — goes to Republicans, with just 38 percent to Democrats and another share going to outside groups. Lawyers and and law firms are the top industry giving to Democrats.
  • In 32 races, outside groups have spent more than candidates. The North Carolina Senate contest between incumbent Democrat Kay Hagan and her GOP challenger Thom Tillis has drawn the most outside money, with $58 million spent, even more than the previous record of $52.4 million outside money in the 2012 Virginia Senate race.
  • The number of individual donors giving more than $200 in "hard money" to candidates or party committees subject to contribution limits is shrinking. In every midterm election cycle until the previous one, the pool of individual donors has grown, topping out at 817,464 in 2010. This time only 666,773 individuals have made campaign contributions, a number that is expected to increase between now and Election Day, but that still may not match the 2010 total.

“This latest research again shows further compression of the process,” concluded CRP senior fellow Bob Biersack. “More and more of the relevant participation is happening among fewer and fewer actors, both people and organizations.”  

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