Spies said the super PAC was the first to spend in Wisconsin and Michigan, forcing the Obama campaign to move ad dollars into those states. Restore Our Future also bolstered Romney’s advertising at critical periods when his campaign was short of money, Spies said.
The $1 billion candidate
Romney the candidate was the strongest Republican fundraiser ever, but he was still no match for Obama, who raised more than $1 billion in contributions — about half from donors giving $200 or less at a time. Romney’s campaign relied primarily on wealthy donors and conservative groups to help make up the difference.
“GOP super PACs leveled the playing field,” said Jonathan Collegio, a spokesman for American Crossroads and its nonprofit affiliate, Crossroads GPS, which together spent about $300 million to help Romney and other Republicans.
More than 250 groups spent $100,000 or more on the elections, according to Center for Responsive Politics data, mostly super PACs focused on one candidate or cause. The deluge fueled a campaign arms race of sorts, as candidates in both parties increasingly focused on raising as much cash as possible for fear of what the other side had in store.
Obama held more than twice as many fundraisers as rallies during the long campaign; Romney’s running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.), was still seeking money in red states two weeks before Election Day.
The outside groups Republicans depended on were hampered by laws that give favorable ad rates to candidates, meaning these groups generally paid higher prices. Even at the end, when Romney and his allies began outspending Obama on the airwaves, the incumbent still ran more commercials in most swing-state markets.
In the Senate, the conservative push was a resounding failure. Crossroads, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other GOP-leaning groups spent at least $94 million targeting Democrats Tammy Baldwin (Wis.), Sherrod Brown (Ohio), Joe Donnelly (Ind.), Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.), Timothy M. Kaine (Va.), Bill Nelson (Fla.) and Jon Tester (Mont.), according to FEC data; all emerged victorious Tuesday.
“Our victory proves neither corporations nor billionaires can buy Montana,” Tester said after his race was declared on Wednesday.
The Sunlight Foundation, which tracks money in politics, calculated Wednesday that two-thirds of the money spent by outside groups backed losing candidates. Success rates varied dramatically from group to group: American Crossroads and its nonprofit affiliate spent about 6 percent of their funds on winners, while the Service Employees International Union had a 70 percent victory rate, Sunlight found.
Several Republicans were widely seen as flawed candidates who probably couldn’t have been saved. Mourdock — who defeated longtime Sen. Richard G. Lugar in Indiana’s GOP primary with the help of super PACs — hurt his chances when he said that if a woman becomes pregnant as a result of rape, it is something “God intended to happen.” Republican groups outspent Democrats 2 to 1 in the race, yet Donnelly trounced Mourdock by six points.
The single most expensive congressional race was the Senate contest in Virginia between Kaine and George Allen (R), which attracted more than $50 million from independent groups; Kaine won comfortably. In Connecticut, former wrestling company executive Linda McMahon (R) failed in her second try at the Senate, having spent more than $90 million of her fortune over two races.
One matchup largely untouched by outside spending was in Massachusetts, where Democratic challenger Elizabeth Warren bested Sen. Scott Brown (R). The candidates had agreed to discourage third-party groups from running ads; the pact ended up benefiting Warren, who raised more money than her opponent.
In the House, Rep. Robert J. Dold (R) of Illinois fell to Democrat Brad Schneider despite $1.9 million spent by Republican groups in the final weeks of the campaign, compared with just $5,600 in outside help for Schneider.
Democrats beat three other Republican incumbents in Illinois, despite being outspent in each race. In the starkest example, GOP groups had spent $5.3 million since Sept. 1 to try to save Rep. Joe Walsh, but he lost to Tammy Duckworth, an Iraq war veteran and former Obama appointee who received $454,000 in outside help.
Many targeted candidates in both parties complained that super-PAC money distorted their races and forced them to spend valuable time seeking money and mounting a defense rather than discussing issues.
In Oregon, Rep. Peter A. DeFazio (D) came under attack for a second cycle from a super PAC funded by a New York hedge-fund manager who opposes a financial transactions tax sponsored by the incumbent. The group spent $500,000 against him, most of it in the final two weeks; DeFazio won easily on Tuesday.
“He’s putting everything he’s got against me,” DeFazio said before the election. “It’s no walk in the park, that’s for sure.”