Final campaign finance reports are in, and the Center for Responsive Politics has rated the race in Virginia the most expensive U.S. Senate contest in the nation. Total spending hit $88 million, second only to the race for president. But not far behind was the U.S. Senate race in Ohio, where spending reached $84 million.
What was striking in Ohio was the sharp growth in activity by independent organizations after the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, which allowed unlimited spending by individuals, corporations and unions. Ohio voters saw the results in last year’s race between Sherrod Brown, the incumbent Democrat, and Josh Mandel, the Ohio treasurer and Republican challenger.
Just compare the results to the 2010 U.S. Senate race between Rob Portman, the Republican candidate, and Lee Fisher, the Democrat. Their committees spent about $21 million; outside groups, about $3.2 million. In 2012, the Brown and Mandel committees spent almost $43 million, with outside groups pouring in at least $37 million more.
That kind of money raises troublesome questions about the potentially corrupting influence of money on the legislative process, especially when it comes to huge donations from wealthy individuals. Most troublesome are campaign finance rules that make it impossible to track spending completely through campaign finance reports.
Outside groups such as Karl Rove’s American Crossroads spent about $24 million opposing Brown and supporting Mandel, outpacing spending by groups favoring Brown. But Justin Barasky, Brown’s former campaign spokesman, now with the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, recently told the Cleveland Plain Dealer that outside spending by Mandel’s backers was higher.
Barasky’s tally, based on advertising logs at television stations, put such spending, most of it attacking Brown, closer to $40 million. So, Ohio’s U.S. Senate easily could have been the most the most expensive. Nobody really knows for sure.
Unfortunately, as long as Ctizens United stands, unlimited cash will flow. The best course is to tighten reporting requirements, voters getting all the facts about who is trying to influence the race.