The days of candidates dominating their own political campaigns are over.
In the most competitive U.S. Senate races this year, big-money special interests that proliferated after the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision are routinely out-muscling and out-messaging the candidates themselves.
This power shift is most prominent on television, where super PACs and politically active nonprofits — both may accept unlimited contributions — routinely account for nearly one out of every two ads run in a U.S. Senate race. Most of the ads are decidedly negative, and they’ve collectively cost hundreds of millions of dollars with Election Day still 10 days away.
Wealthy liberals and conservatives alike are complicit, pumping money into these groups that, by law, may not operate “in concert or cooperation with” the candidates or parties they seek to boost.
This stands in stark contrast to the 2010 midterm election, when the GOP embraced super PACs while Democrats shunned them. Now, big-dollar liberal groups sometimes trump their conservative counterparts as both seek to support candidates who will help their preferred party win control of the U.S. Senate during the final two years of Barack Obama’s presidency.
The Democratic Party is defending more than a half-dozen seats on Republican-friendly turf. The GOP will seize power if it picks up six seats. These stakes have created a financial arms race that will almost certainly make this election historically expensive.
“Everybody wants to have one more nuke than the other guy does,” says Kathy Kiely, managing editor of the nonpartisan Sunlight Foundation, which tracks money in politics.