Politics

Good Lord That Was a Lot of Money

Two Slate reporters discuss the record-breaking spending that fueled the 2022 midterm elections.

WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 28: U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) speaks during a press conference following a Senate Republican luncheon at the U.S. Capitol on September 28, 2022 in Washington, DC. During the press conference, McConnell spoke on the Republican agenda for the upcoming midterm elections.  (Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)
The dark lord of political fundraising. Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

This post is part of Slate’s Election Day questionnaire, where we ask reporters to chat about topics they’ve been covering through the midterm campaign.

Natalie Shutler: Let’s talk about money. Jim, you wrote recently about how the Dems put money behind MAGA types? Will it backfire? Alex, you wrote recently that Dems got a little smarter on spending—but also got punk’d by a big new donor. How do you guys think Dems are coming into the midterms, moneywise?

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Jim Newell: Yes, Democrats tried to take advantage of a unique situation: Linking arms with Donald Trump to elevate election deniers, and all-of-the-above conspiracy theorists, in Republican primaries, in the hopes of drawing weaker general election opponents. We shall soon find out how much it backfires! But, at least according to polling, it looks like some of the investments will pay off, especially in governor’s races: Josh Shapiro is expected to beat Doug Mastriano in the Pennsylvania governor’s race, Dan Cox hasn’t come close to Wes Moore in the Maryland governor’s race, and Gov. J.B. Pritzker is in good shape in Illinois. The biggest threat of backfiring seems to be in New Hampshire, where Don Bolduc, whom Senate Dems propped up, has a good shot of ousting Sen. Maggie Hassan. Alex?

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Alex Sammon: Hassan was also one of eight Democrat senators who sabotaged the party’s attempt to pass a $15 minimum wage—Dems are also perfectly adept at kneecapping themselves. The other race worth watching to see how well that gambit pays off is Michigan’s 3rd Congressional District. Dems went big on boosting John Gibbs, who is waaay to the right of incumbent Republican Peter Meijer, one of 10 House GOP members to vote to impeach Trump. Gibbs won, but the Dem involvement in the race drew a ton of uproar and condemnation from within the party regarding the whole practice, especially as party leaders were crying poor in other critical races, cutting spending and lamenting the fundraising environment. Democrat Hillary Scholten is forecast to win the seat, but there’s been precious little polling on the race, and the House has been trending steadily in the direction of Republicans of late.

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Has there been a big fundraising scramble over the last week? Month?

Alex: At this point, there’s some parity in the overall spending numbers, when all House, Senate, and gubernatorial race spending is summed. But Democrats have been playing quite a bit of catch up in the last handful of weeks, as Republicans raised a boatload of money throughout the year and then really unleashed it in the past two-plus months. Of particular note is the eye-glazing $500 million pulled in by Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy for the GOP in the House. It’s just a stunning quantity and has allowed the party to get super aggressive challenging Democrats in a number of blue districts they’d otherwise have no business in. And Mitch McConnell, always a fundraising warlock, has come up with enough money to overcome really weak Senate candidates. Those two have drawn a whole new class of megadonors off of the sidelines. Democrats have had more success with individual candidates raising their own money than in their broad, partywide groups.

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Jim: I think the pace of ad spending from each party tells much of the midterm story. Democratic groups were hammering Republicans throughout the summer as Republican candidates were still trying to work their way through nettlesome primaries. That, along with the Dobbs decision, falling gas prices, and a successful burst of activity in Congress, appeared to improve Dems’ fortunes. But once the fresh burst of those developments had subsided, and Republican primaries were out of the way, Democrats got hit with a dump truck of spending about how they all want to let all murderers out of jail, right around the time that voters were starting to pay the most attention. And you saw, when the Republican spending machine went fully operational, just about every big race tightened up.

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Who had the most expensive races of the cycle?

Jim: The victory would appear to go to John Fetterman and Mehmet Oz in the Pennsylvania Senate race, where candidates and outside groups (mostly outside groups), per OpenSecrets, have spent over $300 million. The Georgia, Arizona, and Nevada Senate races follow. This makes sense, as they are the tightest Senate races, and it’s an arms race between the two sides to maintain spending parity. Federal elections, post–Citizens United, are mostly just biennial transfers of wealth from those with disposable income to owners of telecommunications systems.

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Alex: It’s especially insane given that Georgia is almost certainly heading to a runoff, which means we’re gonna have a centimillion-dollar redux two months later. No surprise, this is the most expensive midterm cycle of all time. The Senate numbers are obscene, but this is also the first cycle where we’ve routinely seen outside spending in congressional primaries cross into seven figures; a bunch of races are now well into the eight-figure range for the general. For Democrats, the most expensive races have also been the most quixotic. The top raising House race has been in Georgia’s 13th, where Democrat Marcus Flowers is taking on Marjorie Taylor Greene and has a less than zero chance of winning. Carrick Flynn, a candidate in Oregon’s 6th congressional primary, broke the $10 million mark but didn’t even make it to the general.

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Dems got a little smarter on spending—but also got punk’d by a big new donor.

Alex: 2020’s Democratic megadonors, Michael Bloomberg and Tom Steyer, mostly went silent in 2022. Desperate for a new sponsor, they courted Sam Bankman-Fried, a 30-year-old crypto titan and founder of FTX. Bankman-Fried quickly became the party’s second-largest contributor but spent largely on defeating progressives in Democratic primaries, and then announced he was out of the political spending game three weeks before Election Day, when Dems were in desperate need. Today we found out that Bankman-Fried is selling much of his crypto empire thanks to sudden liquidity issues. It might not just be Dems getting frozen out here; he could be out of money altogether. One of the many perils of banking on a paper billionaire reliant on an industry wracked by fraud. Any GOP bankrollers that were notable to you, Jim?

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Jim: It’s interesting to see how the GOP donor pecking order has shifted in the past decade. It’s the first election cycle since Sheldon Adelson died, for one, and his widow Miriam “only” donated $20 million this year. Koch Industries put in about the same. (Charles Koch has never really seen eye to eye with the Trumpified version of the party.) These used to be the masters of the GOP universe!

Who’s footing the bill instead? The most covered Republican donor of the cycle was probably tech investor Peter Thiel who, as you’ve written Alex, purchased a couple of Senate nominations for his Orcs. Otherwise, it’s a bunch of finance executives and captains of industry. In the 2010s, it was toilet paper and paper cup purchases that fueled the Kochs’ political spending. Now it’s booming pandemic-era cardboard box demand that allows the Uihleins to prop up the Republican Party. Which everyday item that a Republican monopolist has cornered the market on will pay for the next few cycles of Republican ads? Copper-bottom pots? GLASS? We shall see.

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