The Price Of Winning Just Got Higher, Especially In The Senate

Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) paid a high price to keep his seat: $27.8 million. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)


While the White House may not have gone to the biggest spender, an awful lot of House and Senate seats did -- as usual. And it was pricier than ever to win them.

This election cycle, an average winning Senate candidate had spent $10.4 million through Oct. 19 (reflecting the latest reports filed with the Federal Election Commission). That's a $1.8 million increase over the same period in the 2014 cycle. By the end of last cycle, the number rose to $10.6 million, and a similar uptick is expected this time once post-election and year-end reports are filed.

But in the post-Citizens United era, spending by campaigns alone doesn't tell the whole story. Factoring in outside spending (excluding outlays by party committees) nearly doubles the average cost of winning a Senate seat to $19.4 million, which tops the $16.8 million average cost by the end of 2014 cycle.

The role of super PACs and political nonprofits in Senate races has only grown since 2012. Four years ago, 22 percent of the $14.6 million total average cost of winning a Senate seat came from outside groups, and in 2014, their share was 37 percent of the $16.8 million. This time around, the share has jumped to 47 percent.

Outside spending less a factor in the House

An average winning House candidate had spent $1.3 million through Oct. 19 this cycle, on par with with the $1.2 million such a candidate spent over the same period in 2014 and 2012. The numbers rose to $1.5 million and $1.6 million by the end of the 2014 and 2012 cycles, respectively.

Outside groups are a relatively unimportant factor in most House races, unlike in the Senate. Their share of the average cost of winning in the House has been relatively steady: Of the $1.5 million total average cost of winning a House seat including outside spending this cycle, 14 percent came from outside groups, a relatively small increase from 2014's 11 percent.

Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), whose campaign spent $27.8 million, was the biggest spender to win a congressional election this year. The match between the Republican incumbent and his Democratic challenger Katie McGinty brought a torrent of campaign and outside spending -- a total of $164 million, making it the single most expensive Senate race this cycle.

Speaker of the House and the biggest spender in the lower chamber Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) successfully defended his seat after spending $12 million in the race. This was by no means a competitive bid though, and knowing that, the Democratic challenger Ryan Solen had only spent $10,180 for the unsuccessful effort.

A bulk of contributions to Ryan went to party groups to fund other candidates in need including the $3.8 million to National Republican Congressional Committee.

The biggest spending winner of a House bid with actual competition was Rep. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.), who spent $6.7 million to secure her seat. Her Democratic opponent Matt Heinz spent $1.3 million in his unsuccessful campaign.

Republican incumbent Mo Brooks (R) of Alabama was the thriftiest winning candidate in the House. His campaign had raised $452,935 for the 5th Congressional District race, but he paid out only $91,638 to keep his seat, just half of what was spent by the winner of the cheapest House race in 2012, Rep. Jose Serrano (D-N.Y.). Brooks' Democratic opponent Will Boyd spent $54,924, and no outside spending has been reported for this race.

The Senate candidate who spent the least to get elected was incumbent Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.), whose campaign only spent $2.7 million. But he was virtually unopposed: His Democratic challenger, Eliot Glassheim, only spent $21,140.

Brooks and Hoeven's near-effortless campaigns affirmed the incumbent advantage in both the upper and lower chambers of Congress. On Tuesday, 90 percent of the 31 Senate incumbents and 97 percent of the 380 House incumbents that ran for reelection this cycle successfully defended their seats, the highest re-election rates in the past few cycles.