Money can’t buy the Senate

It’s a common belief: Money — whether spent on campaigns, party-building, or the “independent expenditures” that are campaign work in all but legal classification — “buys” elections. Democrats campaigning for Senate and their supporters put that proposition to the test in the 2020 elections in a big way, channeling tens of millions through big-money super PACs and small-dollar fundraising vehicles like ActBlue.

Most of them lost.

In North Carolina, Democrat Cal Cunningham outraised incumbent Republican Sen. Thom Tillis by more than two-to-one. Outside spenders backing Cunningham also outspent those backing Tillis. Cunningham lost.

In Iowa, it was the same story: Democrat Theresa Greenfield outraised incumbent Republican Sen. Joni Ernst by more than two to one and was supported by more outside spending. Greenfield lost.

Indeed, as of writing, OpenSecrets data show that Democratic candidates outraised Republicans in each of the top ten most expensive Senate races nationwide, winning three and losing six, with the Georgia race to be decided in a runoff.

It wasn’t just in Senate races that the Democrats’ “green wave” of donor money failed to generate a blue wave at the polls. In 2017, Obama administration Attorney General Eric Holder, with the blessing of former President Obama himself, started a political action committee to win Democratic power in state legislatures and ensure Democrats would control redistricting after the 2020 census. In the 2020 elections, the efforts of Holder’s National Democratic Redistricting Committee can only be considered a failure, as Democrats not only failed to gain chambers but conceded a new Republican “trifecta” (with the governorship and both houses of the legislature under single-party control) in New Hampshire.

These results are a bitter pill for the advocates of governmental restrictions on campaign speech (known by the euphemism “campaign finance reform”) who use the purported purchase of American democracy as grounds to limit political debate. Indeed, reports from the New York Times suggest that voters can be turned off by big money efforts to nationalize local races; the “paper of record” found that the tens of millions that Democrats spent on behalf of Sara Gideon’s challenge to longtime Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) did as much to turn off Mainers as it did to persuade them.

It might disappoint professional politicos, local television station advertising sales departments, and multi-millionaires looking to “make a difference” in partisan politics, but there is long-standing evidence that the public cannot be “bought” by simply throwing money at elections. In fact, the top individual donors identified by Opensecrets in the presidential and midterm elections from 2012 through 2020 — Republicans Sheldon and Miriam Adelson in 2012, 2018, and 2020 and Democrats Tom and Kat Steyer in 2014 and 2016 — backed the losing sides.

The evidence is clear: Both parties have sufficient resources for political combat and voters are more than capable of affirming or rejecting the messaging put on their airwaves. Despite the dozens of million-dollar mortgages in the D.C. suburbs that rely on the assumption that Americans are for sale, they are not.

Michael Watson is the Research Director at Capital Research Center in Washington, D.C.

Tags Campaign finance Eric Holder Joni Ernst Susan Collins Thom Tillis
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