Since the Republicans swept to victory in last Tuesday’s midterm election to claim control of the Senate and increase their majority in the House, analysts have been slicing and dicing the record sums that were spent by both sides.
When all is said and done, campaigns committees, outside groups and super PACs spent roughly $4 billion on congressional and gubernatorial contests this year, including about $1 billion on the Senate races alone.
Republicans picked up at least seven Democratic-held Senate seats and are on track to pick up two more in Alaska and Louisiana before it’s all over.
The Sunlight Foundation, a campaign spending watchdog, offered one important measure of the run-away spending last week by looking at the “return on investment” that many deep-pocketed political organization scored this year. Not surprisingly, conservative groups like Karl Rover’s super PAC American Crossroads and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce scored in the 80 percent and 90 percent levels. At the same time, groups that heavily backed the hapless Democrats had little to show for the tens of millions that they spent.
Now comes a revealing analysis by the Brookings Institution of where the bulk of the money was spent and how much the rival campaigns spent per eligible voter in making their case. The numbers are staggering:
By far, the battle in North Carolina between Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan and Republican challenger Thom Tillis was the most expensive Senate race in history, totaling more than $111 million, according to the analysis. Tillis prevailed in one of the hardest-fought Senate races in the country.
Colorado was close behind, with a total of $97.1 million spent by both sides as Republican Rep. Cory Gardner unseated Democratic Sen. Mark Udall. In Iowa, a total of $88 million was spent in a race in which Republican state senator Joni Ernst beat Democratic Rep. Bruce Braley for an open Democratic seat.
As Grace Wallack and John Hudak wrote for Brookings, spending totals alone don’t tell the whole story. “Spending differences across states can occur for a variety of reasons, including geographic size, population size, and the expense of media markets,” they wrote.
A more useful metric, they argue, is the magnitude of campaign spending per voter. In that case, massive, sparsely populated Alaska tops the list. This year, Alaskans were treated to a highly competitive Senate race between Democratic Sen. Mark Begich and Republican challenger Dan Sullivan. Although the victor has not yet to be officially declared, Sullivan is well ahead of Begich in the vote count.
Some $60.7 million was poured into the Alaska Senate race from both sides. Alaska ranks 47th in population with just over 700,000 residents and an estimated 503,000 eligible voters. After adjusting spending for the estimated eligible voting population, the cost works out to $120 per vote cast.
In New Hampshire, Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen fended off an aggressive challenge from Republican Scott Brown in a race that cost $50 per eligible voter. And in Iowa, the Ernst emerged victorious in a race that cost the equivalent of $39 per vote.
Here is a chart that illustrates these points:
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