Money didn’t talk in 2012, it screamed. But as any tantrum-throwing 2-year-old knows, screaming guarantees attention, not success.
Republicans marshaled an unprecedented flood of outside cash in 2012 aimed at unseating President Obama and winning a Senate majority—and fell well short on both counts. But from the beginning of the cycle, it was clear that the new order of unbridled money, secretive nonprofits, and super PACs had fundamentally reshaped how American politics is played. Candidates are now less masters of their own electoral destiny than ever, buffeted instead by the whims and wallets of millionaires, billionaires, and special interests.
Money made its first memorable yelp in Iowa last December. Newt Gingrich had surged in the GOP presidential primary, but a blanket of negative advertising quickly smothered his momentum. The source was not Mitt Romney, his chief rival, but an outside group operated by Romney’s former advisers.
Gingrich came in fourth in Iowa and seemed finished—until he had a super PAC of his own, bankrolled by $15 million in casino cash from Sheldon Adelson. Gingrich was back in business. By then, so was Rick Santorum, who had nearly tied Romney in Iowa. His $2.1 million angel investor was Foster Friess. The primary wasn’t just a race between Romney and his rivals; now it was between Romney and his rivals’ richest donors.
Money didn’t buy the outcome, but it did determine the race’s trajectory—a pattern that would repeat in races across the nation. Over the summer, Obama used his financial might to run ads defining Romney as a heartless corporate raider. So while Romney’s primary treasury was depleted, outside groups (flush with six- and seven-figure checks, some from secret donors) spent on his behalf. In the end, spending was mostly a wash in the presidential contest, the first since the Supreme Court loosened the campaign finance laws.
In the Senate, Democrats faced an unprecedented dump of third-party donor dollars. Republicans—led by the Karl Rove-backed Crossroads GPS/American Crossroads apparatus—struck early and often. GOP groups and the National Republican Senatorial Committee spent a combined $15 million against Tammy Baldwin in Wisconsin, nearly $10 million against Sen. Bill Nelson in Florida, $16 million against Sen. Sherrod Brown in Ohio, and $27 million against Tim Kaine in Virginia, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Yet all of those Democrats won.
To be fair, the GOP fielded weak candidates in many races. Those in Indiana and Missouri tripped over rape, pregnancy, and abortion issues. In Wisconsin, former Gov. Tommy Thompson proved to be past his prime. In Ohio and Florida, Republicans Josh Mandel and Connie Mack, respectively, seemed unready for prime time. “You can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig,” Republican strategist Ron Bonjean says of the 2012 GOP field.
Still, victorious Democrats this week boasted of fighting off a deluge of GOP money. “They can’t buy themselves the U.S. Senate,” Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, head of the Democrats’ Senate campaign operation, told reporters this week. Kaine declared in his victory speech that it is the voters, “not the number of zeros behind a check, that decide elections.”
What neither mentioned was the biggest difference between 2010 and 2012: Democrats had super PACs of their own. Majority PAC, the leading one backing Senate Democrats, spent $6 million on Kaine’s behalf, out of a nearly $37 million nationwide outlay. It was not, dollar for dollar, what the Republicans mustered, but it was enough.
Come January, there will be at least a handful of senators swept into office on a tide of outside money. Ted Cruz vaulted past an establishment rival and won the Texas GOP primary partly on the strength of $5.6 million from the conservative Club for Growth. The super PAC also spent $1.6 million to swap longtime Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana for conservative Richard Mourdock in the primary—a move that ended up handing the safe GOP seat to Democratic Rep. Joe Donnelly. In Nebraska, Deb Fischer will be the state’s newest senator. She lagged in third place throughout much of a heated Republican primary but nudged past the finish line first with the help of a last-minute $250,000 ad blitz funded by billionaire Joe Ricketts.
Those races were evidence of a tactical truism: The smaller the race, the bigger the impact of money, especially when it arrives late, as a surprise, and en masse. Republicans blindsided Democrats with sneak attacks in House races across the country in 2010. But by 2012, House Democratic allies had formed their own super PAC, too. That group, the House Majority PAC, said in a memo this week that it had reduced the GOP’s share of two-party spending from 74 percent (of a combined $99 million) in 2010 to 57 percent (of $187 million total) this year.
Perhaps no incoming member of Congress owes as much to a single outside benefactor as Gloria Negrete-McLeod. The California Democrat ran a largely ignored bid to unseat fellow Democrat Rep. Joe Baca—that is until New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg decided to make the race a cause célèbre in his battle with the gun lobby. He unloaded $3.3 million against Baca in the last two weeks of the campaign. Baca’s protests were drowned out by Bloomberg’s screaming millions.
This article appeared in print as "What Can Money Buy?"
This article appears in the Nov. 10, 2012, edition of National Journal.