If money can buy votes, there’s certainly some difference in market value.
Senate primary candidates from the two major parties have spent as much as $62 and as low as 3 cents per vote received, according to a Roll Call analysis of Federal Election Commission disbursement filings for the primaries that have taken place to date. The three candidates who spent the most per votes all competed in the Nevada Senate race to replace Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, which is rated a Tossup by The Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report /Roll Call.
The primary winners — Democrat Catherine Cortez Masto and Republican Rep. Joe Heck — spent $62 and $33 per vote, respectively.
But those high levels of spending aren’t the norm. The median amount candidates nationwide spent per vote — $1.52 — was roughly 40 times less than what Cortez Masto spent.
Neither Cortez Masto, who won 81 percent of the vote in the Democratic primary, nor Heck, who took 65 percent in the Republican contest, had ultra-competitive primaries. This could indicate that their spending goals were aimed more at building support for the general election than fending off primary challengers.
"The campaign's advertising was not directed toward Nevada's primary; it was to remind Nevadans of Catherine Cortez Masto's record of working across the aisle to solve problems for the people of Nevada,” said Zach Hudson, a spokesman for the former state attorney general, in a statement.
Cortez Masto spent $5.1 million before the primary election.
Also contributing to the Nevada candidates' high cost-per-vote was low voter turnout in the race: Only about 100,000 Nevadans voted in each party’s Senate primary, which took place months after the state’s presidential primaries.
In addition to the apparent focus on the general election and the low turnout, Sig Rogich, a Las Vegas advertising industry veteran and senior assistant in the George H.W. Bush White House, offered a third explanation: Nevada is just a costly place to run statewide campaigns. Vast rural areas separate the urban centers of Las Vegas and Reno, which makes campaigning in each distinct area a challenge, he said.
“It's like winning three different media efforts, and ground game efforts, and get-out-the-vote efforts,” Rogich said. “And you add to that the cost of media in Las Vegas. It’s extraordinary.”
Besides the two winners in Nevada, a third candidate reached the top of the list for the highest ratio of dollars spent to vote received. Bill Tarbell, a Republican, only spent $41,500, but he received even fewer votes — 1,179.
Tarbell loaned himself almost all the money used in his campaign, and he finished in sixth place among Nevada Republicans.
The least expensive
In order to distinguish primary from general campaign spending, Roll Call’s analysis only includes FEC reports filed prior to primary election dates for candidates who are opposed. This leaves out last-minute spending before election day, since most candidates filed their documents several weeks before their primaries.
While candidates in Nevada spent the most per vote, candidates in North Carolina spent the least, on average. The six candidates in the Tar Heel State who filed reports with the FEC spent an average of 81 cents per vote.
The winners of the primaries there spent the most of the six candidates, though they still tracked far behind the Nevada winners: $2.56 per vote for incumbent Republican Sen. Richard M. Burr, and $1.04 for Democrat Deborah Ross.
Nationally, Oregon Republican Mike Callahan earned the distinction for least spent per vote. He managed to win his Senate primary at a cost of just 3 cents per vote.
Callahan’s low spending was in part because he hired no staff, though he said in an email he plans on hiring aides for the general election.
“While they say ‘money is the mother's milk of politics’, those with the most money, I have proven in the primary, and from the number you quoted, don't always win the race in the end,” he said.
Callahan now faces a more challenging race against incumbent Sen. Ron Wyden, who has held the seat since 1996. The Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report /Roll Call race ratings list Wyden’s seat as Safe for the Democrats.
Ignoring voter turnout, Republican Sen. Richard C. Shelby of Alabama spent the most before his primary. He reported spending $8.7 million in his FEC filings, and netted a primary win with 505,000 votes.