In the SuperPAC Era, Candidate Fundraising Doesn't Always Matter

When outside groups can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money, politicians' own coffers mean less

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In the super-PAC era, reading the tea leaves of a candidate's Federal Election Commission filing reveals far less about a campaign's viability than it did just last cycle.

Thanks to the Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision, outside organizations can pick up a lot of fundraising slack for promising but underfunded campaigns. So-called super PACs and other third-party groups will likely spend $1 billion trying to influence next year's elections, which means no candidate in a truly competitive race will lose because he couldn't raise enough money. Instead, the new political reality means most candidates in contested races will struggle to spend as much on their own races as outside groups will spend for and against them.

Democrats and Republicans are already spinning their third-quarter numbers, released this week. To Democrats, anemic fundraising from Florida Republicans vying for the right to take on Sen. Bill Nelson and Missouri Republicans running against Sen. Claire McCaskill are hopeful signs that potentially vulnerable incumbents are well-positioned. For Republicans, Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel's $1.5 million haul--$250,000 more than Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown raised--indicates the GOP put another seat in play. In actuality, the ticky-tack press releases from both sides aim to generate just a single positive headline, a drop in what has become a very large bucket.

To see just how little early fundraising actually matters, consider this cycle's incumbents. By this point in 2005, McCaskill, then a challenger, had raised $681,000, while her Republican opponent, then-Sen. Jim Talent, had more than $4 million on hand. Jon Tester, then the president of the Montana Senate, had only $141,000 in the bank, a fraction of Sen. Conrad Burns's $3 million war chest. And Democrat Jim Webb hadn't even entered the race in Virginia against GOP Sen. George Allen.

Now that outside groups can spend unlimited amounts on independent advertising, candidate fundraising means even less. Last year in Colorado, when Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet first sought election after his 2009 appointment, he raised and spent $11.5 million while Republican Ken Buck raised and spent almost $5 million. Yet outside organizations dwarfed both candidates' campaigns; Democratic groups spent $13.2 million on Bennet's behalf and Republican groups spent more than $14 million for Buck. In 2010, outside groups spent more than $10 million per state on Senate races in Nevada, Arkansas, Pennsylvania, Washington, Illinois, Missouri, and California, according to data compiled by The Hotline and the Center for Responsive Politics. The average member spent $1.44 million to win his or her House seat; in 38 districts, outside groups spent more, according to the center's data.

"You're going to see candidates having a smaller voice in their own campaigns," said Rob Collins, a Republican strategist who ran the American Action Network, which spent more than $20 million to influence federal elections in 2010, according to center data.

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