Politics & Government

Coming soon to a TV or web site near you: A record-breaking, expensive 2018 election

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., speaks at the podium during a news conference announcing GOP tax legislation. The tax overhaul could play a big role in the 2018 election.
Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., speaks at the podium during a news conference announcing GOP tax legislation. The tax overhaul could play a big role in the 2018 election. AP

By all accounts, political spending for the November 2018 election will shatter every record.

With antipathy toward President Donald Trump energizing Democrats, and Republicans intent on maintaining their congressional majorities, campaign watchers expect a chart-topping year that will easily surpass the $3.84 billion that candidates, political parties and outside groups spent in 2014 when Republicans took full control of Congress.

It’s all reminiscent of 2010, when motivated conservative activists helped Republicans win a majority in the House during then-President Barack Obama’s first term.

“This looks more like the tea party election, except from the left, than it does the more sedate 2014 election,” said Sarah Bryner, research director at the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks campaign spending. The tea party, a grassroots conservative movement, became a big player in the 2010 election.

This year, Bryner said, “There are candidates on both sides already raising lots of money, but generally speaking there’s just a lot more Democratic challengers.”

Democrats are trying to regain control of both chambers of Congress for the first time since the 2010 election, and money matters, said Michael Malbin, executive director of the Campaign Finance Institute, a Washington watchdog group.

“A challenger needs to have enough money to be heard in a district and to break through the communication advantage that an incumbent has,” Malbin said. “It’s not that more money causes victory but money is part of the package the produces victory.”

The 2016 presidential race illustrated how there’s more involved than bulging coffers, notably a candidate and a message. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and a super PAC supporting his candidacy raised more than $120 million for his presidential bid, but Bush got nowhere and dropped out in February.

You can be pretty sure that, except for extraordinary circumstances, if you don’t have money, you will lose.

Michael Malbin, Campaign Finance Institute

Democrats today are buoyed by what they see as a prime opportunity to take back the House. As of Sept. 30, a record number of Democratic challengers —some 391 — had raised a not insignificant $5,000 each. Of those 391, 145 have already raised at least $100,000.

Democrats need a gain of at least 24 House seats to take control of the chamber. There are about 60 Republican-held seats that appear competitive at this point, including several in California, Florida, North Carolina, Texas and Kansas.

The 2018 Senate map is more of a challenge for Democrats. Republicans, who want to expand their narrow majority, are defending nine seats, compared to 25 for Democrats. Ten Senate Democrats are attempting to win in states Trump won, including top Republican targets Sens. Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Joe Donnelly of Indiana and Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin.

As important as the money candidates raise is cash from the parties and outside groups. Relatively new major players are the four super PACS aligned with top congressional leaders which can ask for and receive unlimited contributions. They also have the ability to inject huge amounts of late money into close races.

“These things were barely getting going (in 2010) but in the last election they were the biggest players on the block,” Malbin said.

Outside spending has increased since the Supreme Court found in the 2010 Citizens United decision that political spending is protected under the First Amendment. That decision kicked open the door for corporations and unions to spend unlimited amounts.

The Congressional Leadership Fund, aligned with House Speaker Paul Ryan, plans to raise and spend $100 million to protect the GOP House majority. It’s already opened 20 field offices in what it considers the most competitive districts across the country, including four in California, two in Texas and two in Florida. It plans to open another 10 in the next few months.

The group’s fundraising “is at a record setting pace,” said executive director Corry Bliss. Donors are motivated by what he said is a stark choice: “Do you want Speaker (Paul) Ryan or do you want Speaker (Nancy) Pelosi?”

His counterpart, the House Majority PAC, which is focused on helping Democrats win House seats, expects to exceed the $56 million it raised in 2014.

“The day to day engagement from people who haven't participated before has just expanded exponentially,” said executive director Charlie Kelly. He noted that a number of House challengers have already out-raised the incumbents, arguing that it "speaks to the challenges (Republicans) face."

Priorities USA, a super PAC created to help elect President Barack Obama, will assist in the off-year election for the first time in its history. Its goal is to spend $50 million in digital advertising in what Priorities chair Guy Cecil said is an “unprecedented level” for Democrats.

What could also boost spending is the internal wars in both parties: Ex-White House chief strategist Steve Bannon has signaled his intent to wage a “season of war” on the Republican establishment. A prominent pro-Trump super PAC with ties to Bannon has already endorsed in the Wisconsin and Arizona GOP Senate primaries.

He could find competition for dollars from the Trump-affiliated America First Action Super PAC, which Politico says plans to spend $100 million to promote the GOP efforts at a tax overhaul as well as elect pro-Trump Republicans.

Among Democrats, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., is facing a primary challenge against California Democratic state Senate President Kevin de León.

Progressive groups are also expected to be players in House and Senate races after raising considerable sums this year for House candidates running in red-tinged districts.

Yet congressional Republicans could falter if they’re unable to deliver on campaign promises. Major donors, including those affiliated with the billionaire industrialist Koch brothers, are warning that failing to pass the tax overhaul could dampen enthusiasm for giving.

“Republicans will pay a heavy price in the midterm elections,” if they can’t enact tax cuts, Chris Wright, a Koch donor from Denver, told reporters at a recent Koch seminar.

“People double down on success. They don’t double down on failure,” he said.

An array of Koch-affiliated groups plans to spend up to $400 million on the midterms, but could shift resources to other races, including those at the state level if promises aren’t kept, said James Davis, a spokesman for Freedom Partners, a Koch group.

“We get engaged in the political process to advance these issues,” Davis said of a tax overhaul. “If they're not doing that we'll find other opportunities.”

Lesley Clark: 202-383-6054, @lesleyclark