Super PACs and other outside spending groups have played a dramatic and dominant role in the 2016 elections, spending $1.2 billion to date, according to Open Secrets. 

Outside money is playing its most pronounced role in the battle between Republicans and Democrats for control of the Senate. In seven of the eight key battleground races expected to determine Senate control, spending by outside groups has greatly exceeded the total spending by the two major party candidates in the race – in margins as high as 4 to 1.

“The impact of outside spending in the 2016 election, and in particular, in key Senate races is a fundamental perversion of our political system,” according to Democracy 21 president Fred Wertheimer.

“In essence, outside groups have taken control of the battleground Senate races and the messages communicated by the candidates to voters have been drowned out by the messages from outside groups – with the bulk of these messages in the form of negative attack ads,” Wertheimer said.

In the eight key Senate races, as seen in the chart below, outside groups have spent a total of $447 million for/against candidates compared to $210 million spent by the candidates. 

Total Outside Spending vs Total Candidate Spending

Senate Race

Outside Spending

Candidate Spending

Comparison Ratio

Pennsylvania $105 million $39 million 2.7 to 1
New Hampshire $81 million $39 million 2.1 to 1
Nevada $80 million $20 million 4 to 1
North Carolina $49 million $14 million 3.5 to 1
Florida $45 million $29 million 1.5 to 1
Indiana $40 million $15 million 2.6 to 1
Missouri $34 million $20 million 1.7 to 1
Wisconsin $13 million $34 million 1 to 2.6
All data from Open Secrets

 With the exception of Wisconsin, in every one of the battleground races, outside groups spent more money opposing the Senate candidate then the candidate had available to spend on his or her own race – in some cases by huge amounts.

The following chart shows on a race-by race basis the resources available to the campaigns of individual Senate candidates to deal with both their opponents and the outside expenditures being made to defeat them. While outside groups are also spending money in these races to support the candidate, they are legally required to do so independent from the candidate’s campaign.

Total Candidate Spending vs Total Outside Opposition Spending


Candidate Spending

Outside Opposition Spending

(spending against candidate or for their opponent)

Pennsylvania Toomey (R) – $27 million

McGinty (D) – $12 million

$56 million

$48 million

New Hampshire Ayotte (R) – $13 million

Hassan (D) – $13 million

$46 million

$33 million

Nevada Cortez Mastro (D) – $12 million

Heck (R) – $8 million

$42 million

$35 million

North Carolina Ross (D) – $9 million

Burr (R) – $5 million

$26 million

$23 million

Florida Murphy (D) – $13 million

Rubio (R) – $16 million

$34 million

$10 million

Indiana Bayh (D) – $7 million

Young (R) – $8 million

$24 million

$15 million

Missouri Blunt (R) – $13 million

Kander (D) – $8 million

$21 million

$12 million

Wisconsin Feingold (D) – $18 million

Johnson (R) – $16 million

$10 million

$2 million

All data from Open Secrets

The bulk of the outside spending in these races has been to attack the Senate candidates. Outside groups have spent $377 million opposing candidates compared to $59 million to support the candidates, a 6.4 to 1 ratio favoring negative spending.

“Negative attacks ads breed skepticism, cynicism and anger about officeholders and government,” according to Wertheimer. “Since there is no way to hold outside groups accountable for what they say, truth all too often falls by the wayside.”

“While it is hard to measure the precise impact of these negative ads, there can be little doubt that by the end of the election, the Senate winner will head for Washington with a large portion of the state believing the worst about their Senator,” Wertheimer said.

“Our political system cannot long withstand this onslaught of unlimited contributions and outside spending by super PACs and other groups,” Wertheimer said. “Unlimited contributions to super PACs must be ended. Nonprofit advocacy groups must be required to comply with tax laws that allow only minimal expenditures on campaign activities.”

The top 100 donors to super PACs alone have given a total of $420 million in this election, an average of $4.2 million per donor, according to Open Secrets.

“The enormous contributions by Super Rich donors to super PACs and other outside spending groups have created widespread opportunities for influence-buying and corruption,” according to Wertheimer. “Outside spending groups, and in particular individual-candidate super PACs, serve as vehicles for massive circumvention of the candidate contribution limits enacted by Congress and upheld by the Supreme Court to prevent corruption.”

“The problems with super PACs cannot be solved, however, by allowing candidates to receive unlimited contributions,” Wertheimer said. “The Supreme Court has long recognized that “corruption” is “inherent in a system permitting unlimited financial contributions” to candidates.”

The Supreme Court has never decided the question of whether contributions to super PACs can be constitutionally limited. A new Supreme Court majority favorable to campaign finance laws could uphold the constitutionality of such limits – limits that existed in federal law for more than three decades until they were struck down in the SpeechNow decision by the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.