President-elect Joe Biden rode to victory this month on a crushing wave of campaign cash, as the 2020 election swept away records for political spending while revealing at least two realities that might surprise the most righteous critics of “big money in politics.”
First, the Democratic Party has emphatically become the party of big money — or anyhow of the biggest money.
And second, money spent in an effort to “buy elections,” as critics like to say, is frequently not money well spent. Even the most aggressive money barrages often fail to determine election outcomes.
Final 2020 spending has not yet been fully reported and calculated. But it’s already clear, reports Open Secrets, the watchdog website of the Center for Responsive Politics, that this year’s federal contests were “more than twice as expensive as the runner up, the 2016 election.”
Total expenditures, Open Secrets projects, will reach around $14 billion for 2020, up from around $6.5 billion in 2016. Some $6.6 billion was spent on the 2020 presidential race, the report estimates, while congressional races in total cost about $7.2 billion.
Overall, Democrats may not have enjoyed the landslide election triumph they’d hoped for. But they buried the GOP in the scramble for money, based on actual spending reported by mid-October, according to Open Secrets.
Democratic candidates and groups had spent almost $7 billion by mid-October, compared with under $4 billion for GOP hopefuls and groups.
This leaves Democrats with a large advantage even if you don’t count the roughly $1.4 billion billionaires Michael Bloomberg and Tom Steyer combined to squander attempting to purchase the Democratic nomination.
Money in politics, in other words, may be anti-democratic, but it isn’t anti-Democratic. It is progressives who most often and most passionately decry the corrupting influence of campaign dollars. But they have done more than merely make peace with the money chase as a fact of political life. They have mastered that form of competition.
Good for them, sort of.
In something of a double-back-flip irony, the 2020 election not only decisively confirms the Democrats’ newfound domination of fundraising (they had pulled ahead in the 2018 midterm election), but it simultaneously dramatizes the limits to what political money can do.
Yes, Biden ousted Trump, the Democrats No. 1 goal, having become the first candidate ever to raise $1 billion from donors. Meanwhile, says Open Secrets, “super PACs and other big-money groups” chipped in “far more to boost Biden than help Trump.”
But Democrats got far less for their money — or perhaps one should say for Wall Street’s money, the big law firms’ money, and the teacher union’s money — in their determined effort to take control of the U.S. Senate.
Republicans appear poised to keep a narrow majority (if they can win either one of two January runoffs in Georgia) despite the fact that “Democratic Senate candidates running in general elections raised a stunning $809 million this cycle, dwarfing Republicans’ $494 million,” according to Open Secrets.
Democratic Senate hopefuls “were also boosted by larger [amounts] of outside money from groups such as super PACs and ‘dark money’ groups,” the watchdogs report.
The impact of all that money often proved disappointing. Crusading to unseat high-value targets such as GOP incumbents Lindsey Graham in South Carolina, Susan Collins in Maine, Mitch McConnell in Kentucky and Joni Ernst in Iowa, Democrats and their groups spent $120 million, $108 million, $91 million and $139 million, respectively — and lost all four races decisively.
House contests tell a more complicated story, with the spending advantage varying widely between the parties from one district to another. But overall, Republicans are on track to surprisingly enlarge their minority caucus, and there is no clear evidence that money consistently determined outcomes in either direction.
Take Minnesota races. In the Fifth Congressional District, Open Secrets shows Republican groups and GOP nominee Lacy Johnson combining to spend around $11 million to unseat Rep. Ilhan Omar, while her DFL primary opponent Anton Melton-Meaux spent more than $4 million. But Omar cruised to victory although less than half as much was spent supporting her.
In the state’s First District, Democrats pressed hard to oust Rep. Jim Hagedorn, who was seen as vulnerable. Challenger Dan Feehan and Democratic groups combined to spend almost $10 million compared to around $6 million spent by Hagedorn and GOP groups. Hagedorn survived in a close race.
It was in Minnesota’s Seventh District where a richly financed offensive succeeded, against longtime incumbent Democrat Collin Peterson. Republican Michelle Fischbach won handily, after she and groups supporting her outspent Peterson and his allies roughly $10 million to $7 million.
These examples are instructive. Minnesota’s Fifth has been a progressive stronghold for generations. The First has been a swing district for many decades, always capable of going either way. In the Seventh, Peterson has tacked skillfully into the conservative prairie winds for 30 years as, election by election, his constituency has become more solidly Republican. That trend finally overtook him.
All three districts, in other words, behaved normally, according to their nature, their demographics, and the interests and beliefs of their voters — the same thing that happened in most Senate races and in all kinds of races across the country in 2020, despite the record-breaking torrents of political money flowing coast to coast.
Money is important in politics, maybe regrettably so. But it will never be so important as voters’ fundamental values, desires and needs.
D.J. Tice is at Doug.Tice@startribune.com.