2010 Set Campaign Spending Records

The 2010 midterm elections had a record-setting $4 billion price tag.

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Even with its byzantine rules and dry legal terminology, campaign finance was a hot topic from the very start of 2010. In his January State of the Union address, President Obama criticized the Supreme Court's then days-old Citizens United v. FEC decision, which loosened campaign spending restrictions, even as the justices sat watching in front of him. "I believe [the decision] will open the floodgates for special interests . . . to spend without limit in our elections," Obama said. "I don't think American elections should be bankrolled by America's most powerful interests, or worse, by foreign entities." Cameras caught Justice Samuel Alito shaking his head in disagreement. [See where members get their campaign cash.]

Thus began what would be a banner year in campaign spending. Candidates, the political parties, and outside groups spent $4 billion on the 2010 congressional elections, more than had been spent in any previous midterm election cycle. The year also featured a crop of high-profile, wealthy candidates, including the top self-funded candidate ever: California Republican Meg Whitman, who spent over $140 million of her own money on her unsuccessful gubernatorial campaign. But perhaps the biggest campaign finance story of 2010 was the new landscape made possible by more lenient spending regulations.

A series of recent court decisions, including Citizens United, opened new avenues of campaign spending for some of America's wealthiest entities. This year was the first in which corporations, unions, and other organizations could spend unlimited sums advocating for or against particular candidates. Groups promoting Republicans came to dominate this so-called outside spending, dropping $191 million, upwards of $70 million more than GOP-allied groups had spent in any previous election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Groups aligned with Democrats, on the other hand, spent only $92 million this year.

The conservative group American Crossroads and its nonprofit arm, Crossroads GPS—both cofounded in 2010 by former George W. Bush advisers Karl Rove and Ed Gillespie—outspent all other groups with $39 million. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce was next, spending $33 million, mostly on Republican candidates. Indeed, the top ranks were filled with right-leaning groups. Among the top 10 outside spenders, only two predominantly supported Democratic candidates.

A substantial portion of the midterm election outside spending was shrouded in secrecy, as some of the biggest spenders were nonprofit organizations that are not required to disclose their donors. All told, four of the top 10 spending organizations did not disclose who funded their election-related activities.

Because of the volume of money and the secrecy about donors, many Democrats lamented the new rules. The Obama administration accused the Chamber of promoting special and foreign interests. The top-spending organizations, however, say the new regulations merely facilitate free speech. "There was a lot of anger and frustration with the way the country's gone in the last two years, and so people were motivated to give," says Carl Forti, political director of American Crossroads.

As campaign spending tends to be far higher in presidential election years than in midterm years, the record-breaking 2010 cycle may have been only a test run for an even more exorbitant 2012 campaign.