Supporters cheer for Democrat Conor Lamb in Canonsburg, Pa., on March 13 in a special election to fill a congressional seat. File Photo by Pat Benic/UPI | License Photo
Aug. 6 (UPI) -- With just three months left until the midterm elections, candidates for Congress are spending at a historic rate.
Federal Election Commission filings and data collected and processed by the Center for Responsive Politics show the 2018 campaigns are on pace to be the most expensive in history.
Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate have raised a combined total of nearly $1.7 billion, according to the center and FEC data.
Democrats have so far raised about $975 million and spent $653 million, while Republicans have raised $713 million and spent $480 million.
The totals include all candidates who have run for legislative office to date, including those who failed to advance beyond the primary. It does not include gubernatorial races, which don't have to file campaign finance reports with the FEC.
In three months, the grand total may be over $2 billion. Center for Responsive Politics Executive director Sheila Krumholz told UPI candidates historically raise 40 percent of their total funds in their campaigns' final months -- meaning there's more to come.
"At this pace, we're looking at a $1.5 billion cycle for House candidates alone. In terms of receipts, that's well ahead of any prior cycle," Krumholz said.
New candidates, new money
Several departures in Congress have opened the door for new candidates, contributing to the increas in fundraising.
Krumholz noted a record 35 Republicans and 17 Democrats have departed the House, while three Senate Republicans have also left their seats ahead of the election.
"Open seats mean typically a wide open field, more spending, it's more of a jump ball," she said. "When you have an incumbent with a war chest, who's been in office for many years given our strong re-election rates, you very often don't even see remotely viable, or even any opposition."
Naturally, the campaign costs grow the longer they last, but the spike in open seats has driven Democrats intent on retaking congressional control to boost the level of fundraising to seize the opportunity. And that, in turn, may be spurring similar fiscal aggression in the GOP.
"Fundraising is running at a much hotter pace generally than in previous cycles and much of that is driven by the Democrats' fundraising," Krumholz said. "But even Republicans are raising money well compared to previous cycles. So there's just more money overall."
A total of 1,499 Democrats have run for the House in 2018, up from 908 and in 2016 and 978 in the last midterm election in 2014. That total includes a large number of first-time candidates, including people of color and women, who have been raising funds at a high rate.
"Women running for the House have already set a record for fundraising, driven almost entirely by Democratic women running for the House," Krumholz said.
Controlling the message
Much of the money spent so far has gone toward paying for television ads, according to a June report by the Wesleyan Media Project, as strategists know it's effective.
A total of $375 million has been spent on more than 1 million ads in congressional and gubernatorial races since the beginning of the election cycle on Jan. 1, 2017, and officials say midterm ad volume has doubled overall since the previous midterm cycle in 2014.
"The rise in advertising has been especially prominent in House races and gubernatorial races, where ad volumes have more than doubled from four years ago," Travis Ridout, co-director of the Wesleyan Media Project, said. "One reason is that groups are starting their advertising earlier than the past, trying to shape primary race outcomes. Moreover, we've seen more candidates throwing their hats in the ring this cycle than in the past, especially on the Democratic side."
The Senate race in Alabama topped the list of the country's biggest spenders, with $14 million spent on almost 60,000 ads -- 26,780 for Democrats and 31,733 for Republicans.
Nearby, the special election for the Georgia's Sixth House district was the most expensive congressional election in U.S. history, with $43.8 million spent. It also saw the most ad spending -- $28.8 million on 33,183 ads.
Republican Karen Handel defeated Democrat Jon Ossof in the race, even though Democrats bought 18,799 ads, compared to 9,509 for Republicans.
Spending vs. winning
Does spending more translate to winning more? Experts say the short answer is yes.
"Generally speaking, cycle after cycle the candidates that spend the most overwhelmingly win on Election Day," Krumholz said.
She added, however, that those statistics generally relate to the final two or three candidates in an election, who have shown they are financially viable.
As the cost of elections continues to rise, candidates with large amounts of personal wealth or richer third-party support gain more of an advantage.
"There's definitely been, for a long time now, a sort of arms race in terms of election spending, which causes the different parties to seek bigger donors and leaves more people out of the conversation," Ian Vanderwalker, senior counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, told UPI.
During the last midterm cycle in 2014, the average winner in the House spent about $1.5 million, while the average loser spent $412,990, the Center for Responsive Politics notes. That's a fact that keeps most ordinary Americans from seeking public office.
"If you've never run for federal office, that's a pretty steep hill to climb," Krumholz said. "I think everyone expects there will be a lot of losing first-time candidates and the question will be whether they get back on the bicycle and keep putting themselves up there."
Vanderwalker said the barrier of entry, created by the financial "arms race," can discourage some candidates from choosing to run and ultimately impoverishes the voters' choices.
"That distorts the political influence of the people," he said. "Democracy is premised on everybody getting a vote and getting to participate.
"But when money in these amounts that very few people can afford is so important, that means those people have [only] outside political influence."