As it has for the past two decades, money performed well this election cycle, helping candidates from both sides of the aisle win. Across the board, 88 percent of congressional races were won by the candidate who spent the most.
Historically, this trend is stronger in the House than the Senate and 2020 was no exception. This year, the top-spending House candidate won 89.2 percent of the time. In the Senate, the top-spender won 71.9 percent of the time, a record low in recent years.
But money didn’t win every race. In the Senate, Democrats lost races even after raising unprecedented amounts of money. That same dynamic played out in toss-up House races. Meanwhile, GOP House challengers spent big in Blue districts, but lost big, too.
While candidate spending was, overall, a strong predictor of who would win a race in 2020, outside spending also played a role. Since the 2010 Citizens United v. FEC decision, super PACs and “dark money” groups have poured billions of dollars into U.S. elections. This year, over 70 percent of House races were won by the candidate with greater support from outside groups. In the Senate, that number was much lower, about 44 percent.
However, when outside groups and candidate committees collectively spent more, House candidates won over 90 percent of the time and Senate candidates won almost 69 percent of the time. These win rates are nearly identical to win rates of candidate spending alone, but jump for GOP House candidates. Republicans won 81.4 percent of House races when their candidate spent the most but it rises to 85.6 percent when outside spending is added in
In the 10 most expensive House races by candidate spending, all but one of the winners was the top-spender. In Minnesota’s 5th District, incumbent Rep. Ilhan Omar spent $4.5 million less than her opponent Lacy Johnson and crushed the Republican by nearly 40 points.
House Democrats outraised GOP candidates in some of the most competitive districts, but often lost. Republican candidates overperformed and won a handful of toss-up seats despite raising millions less.
In the most expensive of the toss-up races, GOP challengers Yvette Herrell and Carlos Gimenez flipped New Mexico’s 2nd District and Florida’s 26th District respectively. Meanwhile, in Texas’ 21st District, freshman Rep. Chip Roy held onto his seat. All three candidates spent at least $3.9 million less than their opponents.
In the Senate, Democratic candidates were the top-spenders in every race they won. In Arizona, astronaut-turned-Senator Mark Kelly spent $30 million more than his opponent and won. Kelly, a Democrat, spent $77.9 million through mid-October and incumbent Sen. Martha McSally spent $47.8 million. It was the second most expensive Senate race this year, with out-of-state donors and outside groups spending lavishly for both candidates. Kelly’s win marks the first time since 1950 that Arizona has elected two Democratic senators. He won by about 2 points.
Freshman Democrat Sen. Gary Peters held on to his seat in Michigan after spending $7.4 million more than his opponent, Detroit businessman John James. That extra financial boost helped Peters in what ended up being the fifth most expensive Senate race. The Democrat spent $38.9 million and the Republican spent $31.4 million through mid-October. Peters also had slightly more support from outside groups, which spent $2.2 million more to help Peters than James.
But not all deep-pocketed Democrats won their races. In fact, Democratic Senate candidates raised unprecedented amounts of cash this fall, but much of it went to losing candidates.
Democrats Jaime Harrison and Amy McGrath raised $107.6 and $88.1 million respectively through mid-October, but both lost handily. In South Carolina, incumbent Sen. Lindsey Graham beat Harrison by 10 points. In Kentucky, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell beat McGrath by nearly 20 points. Both Democrats are using their remaining cash and fundraising prowess to sway the Georgia Senate runoffs and help their party flip the state.
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