This post has been corrected. See note at bottom.

After the Republican Party and its biggest super PAC and dark money supporters suffered a painful string of defeats on Election Day, the media wasted little time in declaring outside money a dud. Nearly every major paper ran versions of the same story: how the new breed of political spending groups had set their money on fire, their advertising and outreach were outclassed by campaigns, their megadonors reduced to consolation group hugs on corporate jets.

“Record spending by independent groups, which in many ways defined how campaigns were waged this year, had no discernible effect on the outcome of most races,” wrote The Washington Post’s Dan Eggen and T.W. Farnam on the day after Election Day. “Spending by outside groups, it turns out, was the dog that barked but did not bite.”

The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Politico led with similar messages, while acknowledging that outside spending had influenced some House races, potentially narrowed the gap between Obama and Romney, and contributed to the negative tone of campaigns.

But their stories forgot to consider a crucial piece of the puzzle: the role of outside money in primaries.

Though understandable immediately after the general elections, this oversight has contributed to the oversimplified and often misleading “dud” narrative that has emerged about independent spending. This misconception becomes increasingly important as the press takes on the biggest question now facing Washington, DC: whether conservatives in Congress can reach agreement with President Obama on major tax and spending issues. Outside spending groups and their power to make game-changing contributions in primaries—particularly in the Republican Party—will likely prove key factors in shaping the budget and spending negotiations taking place in the coming months.

CJR broke down outside spending in Republican Congressional primaries in the 2012 election cycle. We found that outside spending in these races came overwhelmingly from very conservative groups such as the Club for Growth and FreedomWorks—and that these groups were far more successful in picking winners of primaries than they were of general elections. And although outside spending is only one of many factors that can contribute to a candidate’s victory or defeat, winning percentage is precisely the metric many experts used to dismiss outside spending after the general election.

Below are the top ten outside spending groups in 2012 Republican primaries:

Spending Committee Amount Spent
Club for Growth $8,954,181.73
Texas Conservatives Fund $2,313,934
FreedomWorks $1,937,785.14
Liberty for All Super PAC $1,667,833.86
Majority PAC $1,583,340.55
Senate Conservatives Fund $1,398,877.91
Campaign for Primary Accountability $1,090,925.70
House Majority PAC $1,008,156.65
Patriot Majority USA $984,282.65
American Action Network $969,882.90
Source: The Sunlight Foundation, database of independent expenditures. Totals included all funds associated with the group, such as Club for Growth, Club for Growth Action, and Club for Growth PAC.


The dominance of spending groups from the conservative wing of the party is striking. As mainstream organizations such as the National Republican Congressional Committee, National Senate Republican Committee and Karl Rove’s Crossroads groups sat out the primaries, fully a quarter of all outside spending on these races came from the hardline Club for Growth alone. The Club for Growth spent more than three times more than any other organization, and several of the top contributors that followed had similar ideological agendas: FreedomWorks, the Liberty for All Super PAC, and the Senate Conservatives Fund.

An exception is the second largest outside spender in Republican primaries, the Texas Conservatives Fund, which supported the relatively moderate David Dewhurst in his Senate primary battle again Tea Party favorite Ted Cruz—and lost. The other leading rivals to very conservative groups for outside spending on GOP primaries were Democratic groups such as Majority PAC and House Majority PAC, which sought to weaken strong Republican candidates before the general election season.

Not only did hardline groups provide the bulk of outside spending in these races, but major outside spenders were often more successful in Republican primaries than they were in general elections.



Source: The Sunlight Foundation, database of independent expenditures.

Sasha Chavkin covers political money and influence for CJR's United States Project, our politics and policy desk. He has written for ProPublica, the Center for Public Integrity, and The New York World. Follow him on Twitter @sashachavkin.