By: Soo Rin Kim
It's an open secret in the political world that most congressional contests are not contests at all; incumbents tend to raise more money than challengers, and better-funded campaigns almost always win. In some of the most expensive Senate races this cycle, however, challengers are attracting more money from outside spending groups than incumbents, and it may be making a difference.
First, the Keystone State. Pennsylvania's Senate contest is first in the nation at this point in the cycle in money spent by outside groups and candidates combined -- a cool $118.5 million. The candidates' cash isn't evenly divided, though: Democratic challenger Katie McGinty has managed to raise only about $12 million and wouldn't seem to stand much of a chance against Republican incumbent Sen. Pat Toomey, who has raised nearly $28 million so far.
In the post-Citizens United era however, that's only part of the story.
The contest has brought a record-breaking $90 million in outside spending so far -- and it's McGinty who has benefited most from it. Super PACs, party committees and politically active nonprofits have spent $48 million on her behalf, while only $39 million has gone to help her GOP foe.
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has sponsored about $7.8 million worth of anti-Toomey and pro-McGinty independent expenditures, and other liberal super PACs such as Women Vote! (the EMILY's List affiliate) and Planned Parenthood Votes have jumped in with millions of dollars to try to unseat Toomey.
On Toomey's side, conservative super PACs Senate Leadership Fund and Freedom Partners Action Fund have been dropping big dollars -- $9.1 million and $7.3 million so far, respectively. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has also invested $5.1 million in this race.
Real Clear Politics' aggregate of poll data shows how close this race is, with numbers fluctuating almost daily. Toomey led by 1.8 percentage points as of Oct. 19, well within the margin of error for the polls that were averaged.
Like many Republican congressional candidates, Toomey has been distancing himself from GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump while not ruling out the possibility of supporting him.
While it's unusual for a challenger to raise more money than an incumbent, "a challenger [benefiting from] more money from super PACs is not an unprecedented situation, especially in a competitive race like this," said University of Pennsylvania Prof. Marc Meredith, who teaches political science. In 2014, the Republican challenger for the Arkansas Senate race, Tom Cotton, reaped the fruits of nearly $23 million spent on his behalf by outside groups, while similar support for the Democratic incumbent Mark Pryor came to a mere $13.6 million. Cotton won the election that year.
New Hampshire, too, has been at full boil this cycle, with two of the most powerful women in the state competing. And as in Pennsylvania, Republican incumbent Sen. Kelley Ayotte has outraised Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan (by $4.6 million), but the challenger has attracted more outside money.
Of the $72 million in outside spending by super PACs, party committees and politically active nonprofits in connection with the race, nearly $39 million has benefited Hassan, while a little over $33 million has helped Ayotte.
Senate Majority PAC has been the most active outside group on the Democratic side in this battleground race as well, dropping $11.4 million on ads attacking Ayotte and supporting Hassan. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has made independent expenditures to the tune of $7.6 million, and other outside groups such as Women Vote! and Americans for Responsible Solutions, the group that favors broader background checks for gun purchases, have also spent big dollars for Hassan.
The Republican's single biggest supporter among outside groups this cycle has been Granite State Solutions, which has plowed an enormous $18.6 million into attacking Hassan. Las Vegas casino mogul Sheldon Adelson donated $1.5 million to the super PAC.
Ayotte, like Toomey and other Republicans running this year, has found it tricky to position herself vis-a-vis the top of the ticket -- during a debate she called Trump a role model for children. She had to retract her statement only a few days later when the now-famous video from 2005 was publicized, showing Trump making crude comments about sexually abusing women.
University of New Hampshire Political Science Prof. Andy Smith said the money flooding into the race has been wildly out of proportion to the number of registered voters in the state -- just over 918,000. With about $23 million spent by campaigns and $72 million by outside groups so far, the Senate showdown is expected to cost more than $100 million by the end of the election cycle. As Smith points out, that's more than $100 per potential vote.
One outside spender has been active in both the Pennsylvania and New Hampshire races, but on different sides. Independence USA PAC, funded by media giant and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg largely to elect lawmakers who don't toe the NRA line on gun issues, has spent $9 million so far. About $4.8 million of it has gone to help Democrat Hassan in New Hampshire. But another $3.4 million has favored Toomey in Pennsylvania.
There's a good chance of late-inning spikes in Senate outside spending before it's all over. Politico reported Tuesday that the GOP's big players are "going to go out guns blazing" in a last-minute attempt to save Republicans in the upper chamber. According to the report, Senate Leadership Fund, with close ties to Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), is planning on investing $25 million in the six Senate races where Republicans are most vulnerable, including $5 million in Pennsylvania and $2 million in New Hampshire.
That will only solidify the time-honored incumbent advantage. Despite the outside money edge of the challengers in two of the most expensive races this year, the vast majority of that spending in races nationwide has been used to help incumbents, and incumbents have, as usual, raked in far more in campaign contributions.
So far this year, sitting senators have raised a total of $345 million, more than two times the $160 million challengers have taken in.
Of the 12 sectors of political action committees categorized by the Center for Responsive Politics, 10 have given over 90 percent of their contributions to incumbents this cycle.