Brett LoGiurato
Brennan Center
Brennan Center

The scope and influence of outside and sometimes “dark” spending in federal elections has dramatically increased over the last three election cycles, according to a new study released by the Brennan Center for Justice on Wednesday.


The outside-spending explosion comes after the landmark 2010 Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United case, which opened the door to near-unlimited spending in federal elections and the creation of so-called “super PACs.”

The study from the left-leaning Brennan Center comes nearly five years to the date after the Supreme Court’s decision paved the way for fundamental changes in how money flows during campaigns. The group has looked at the issue extensively over the last three election cycles, said Ian Vandewalker, a counsel at the Brennan Center and a co-author of the study.


For Vandewalker, the most stunning result of the study came from its toplines — in all federal elections, super PACs have spent more than $1 billion. But less than 200 people are responsible for donating the bulk of outside groups’ money. Just 195 individuals and their spouses gave almost 60 percent of the $1 billion spent.

“It’s about 200 people out of a nation of 315 million providing the majority of the money going to super PACs, which are responsible for the majority of the outside spending,” Vandewalker told Fusion. “That’s just a massive, massive amount.”

Here are some of the other most eye-popping findings of the study:

  • Outside spending on federal elections more than doubled from the 2010 to 2014 election cycles — to $486 million last year.
  • In 80 percent of competitive 2014 Senate races, outside groups spent more money on the race than the actual candidates running.
  • In a sampling of 10 of those competitive races, outside groups spent 47 percent of the money. Candidates spent only 41 percent, while party committees made up the rest of the spending.
  • In four of those competitive races (the Alaska, Colorado, Iowa, and North Carolina Senate races), the actual candidates spent only one-third or less of the money that went toward the race.
  • Spending by “dark money” groups — those that do not fully disclose their donors — has erupted since the Citizens United decision. It has more than doubled since 2010 — to $226 million in the 2014 cycle.
  • In the 11 most competitive Senate races of 2014, dark money comprised almost 60 percent of outside spending by non-party groups. Accounting for total spending, the public doesn’t know who was behind about 28 percent of it.

Here’s a look at the increase in spending over the last three election cycles:

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The increase in outside spending was particularly evident in the 2014 Senate races:

Screen Shot 2015-01-14 at 12.59.36 PM

And it led to a lower overall percentage of candidate spending in those elections:

Screen Shot 2015-01-14 at 4.58.43 PM

The rise in “dark money” spending was particularly troubling to Vandewalker.

“The reason all this is so concerning is that in a democracy like this, elected officials are supposed to be accountable to their constituents,” he said. “And we’re moving more to a system where elected officials are only accountable to their donors. That needs to be changed.”


Some examples: The North Carolina Senate race pitting incumbent Democrat Sen. Kay Hagan against Republican challenger Thom Tillis saw the most dark money. Tillis received more than $23 million of dark-money support, which accounted for 82 percent of the non-party outside spending on his behalf.

In Colorado, Republican candidate Cory Gardner received less than Tillis — about $22.4 million. But that accounted for 88 percent of the non-party outside spending to support him. And Republican candidates David Perdue in Georgia and Dan Sullivan in Alaska each garnered 85 percent of their non-party support from dark-money groups. Dark-money support was more than twice as high for Republican candidates than Democrats, at $138 million to about $59 million.


“We don’t know where that money came from,” Vandewalker said. “We don’t know who they might owe a favor to.”

Brett LoGiurato is the senior national political correspondent at Fusion, where he covers all things 2016. He'll give you everything you need to know about politics, with a healthy side of puns.

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