The record amounts of money spent in the 2010 midterm elections have been both praised as free speech at work and lambasted as a sign of the influence of special interests. But there is no doubt that non-party organizations wielded more power this year than in any prior midterm election. A recent report from the nonpartisan Campaign Finance Institute suggests that, while non-party spending did not dictate election outcomes this year, it put Democrats on the defensive.
This money largely went towards independent expenditures and electioneering communications, two types of spending that include political communications like broadcast advertising, mailings, and canvassing. Brendan Glavin, data manager at the Campaign Finance Institute, says that heavy spending in the tightest congressional races–even those races won by Democrats–ultimately worked to the Republicans‘ advantage. In recent elections, the left regularly led in non-party spending, with Democratic-allied groups dropping tens of millions of dollars more than Republican-allied groups in 2004, 2006, and 2008. This cycle, however, conservative groups spent $188.9 million, more than double liberals’ $92.3 million. This shift is largely a result of a series of court decisions that loosened campaign finance laws, culminating in the Supreme Court’s January decision in Citizens United vs. FEC, which freed corporations and unions to spend unlimited money advocating candidates’ election or defeat. With 2012 races on the horizon, Democrats and their allies appear ready to change strategies. While President Obama had in the past criticized the Citizens United decision, it appears that the need for Democratic resources in 2012 might drive the White House to change its position. Last week, White House senior adviser David Axelrod indicated in an interview with Politico that in the 2012 campaigns the White House would support more aggressive spending practices by Democrat-allied groups, as long as donors were disclosed. Patriot Majority, a progressive organization that spent $2.9 million supporting Democratic candidates in the 2010 elections, is hoping to be a bigger presence in 2012. Patriot Majority President Craig Varoga says that he has already begun conversations with donors about 2012. “One of the messages we’ve been sharing with people is: fool me once, lose the House. Fool me twice, lose everything. I think people get that, and we’re thinking of that going into 2012,” says Varoga. Altogether, says Glavin, fundraising success in 2012 will depend on a party’s ability to make policy choices that mobilize their donor bases. “The donors have to be activated to participate, to give. If you’re not doing well, it’s a lot harder to get people to get activated,” he says. In short, the accomplishments of President Obama and the 112th Congress, especially their abilities to better the economic situation, will lay the groundwork for pulling in the money, and the votes, in 2012.