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A Thumb on the Scales: Outside Spending in 2010 Senate Races

In 2010, the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission forever changed the landscape of political spending.

The Court’s ruling to allow virtually unlimited contributions to outside political groups1 unleashed a record $290 million in outside spending in 2010 (not counting spending by party committees).2 According to the Center for Responsive Politics, total outside spending in 2010 on congressional races was more than four times the total outside spending in the last mid-term elections in 2006. And as the torrents of super PAC spending in the GOP presidential primaries attest, outside spending in 2012 is on track to break all records.

But does outside spending really “work” to put a favored candidate in power? With the jury still out on 2012, this memo looks to the Senate races in 2010 for some clues.

The answer? Maybe.

Because 2010 was a “wave” election that rode on Tea Party rage, it’s almost impossible to disaggregate the impact of outside spending from prevailing electoral trends. In addition, many other factors—such as the strength of a particular candidate’s appeal and organization—cloud the picture.

Nevertheless, in some campaigns, a big unmatched advantage in outside spending seemed to help tip the balance in a candidate’s favor. In 2010, this worked to the advantage of Republicans—conservative outside groups spent about twice as much on Senate races as liberal groups. Even though conservative groups spent millions of dollars more on losing races than on winning ones (e.g., in Nevada and Colorado), the sheer volume of conservative outside spending meant that their overall “batting average” was nearly twice that of liberal outside groups.

Given this mixed record, there’s only one real certainty about the impact of outside money on Senate races in 2010: Running for Senate is a lot more expensive than it used to be.

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