However, it still seems premature to write off outside money as ineffective. The fact that many of the candidates backed by third party cash lost their races does not mean that the money had no effect. Or, as Grist’s Dave Roberts put it on Twitter: “Leery of this gathering CW that right-wing SuperPAC money was ‘wasted.’ We don’t know what election would have looked like w/out it.” If earlier worries that outside money would run roughshod over democracy were sometimes overstated, the media should also guard against a too-quick consensus that the outside cash was futile.
The House races in particular seem to warrant closer examination. That’s the level where outside cash gave the GOP the clearest advantage in total dollars and in ads aired—and also the level where Republican candidates did best. Other explanations, like GOP-friendly gerrymandering, may explain much of that success—especially if this tally showing Democrats actually won more House votes nationwide holds up—but that doesn’t mean outside money didn’t play a role.
The new consensus also risks obscuring important questions about the role that outside money plays within parties. The course, if not the outcome, of this year’s Republican primary was clearly affected by outside groups. One new Republican congressman, Michigan’s Kerry Bentivolio—whose own brother predicted, “if he gets elected, he’ll eventually serve time in prison”—relied on outside cash to overcome opposition within his party. There are other examples to be found.
That said, the results are in, and outside money did not pick the winners of the nation’s highest-level races. The reasons for this apparently limited impact—and the extent to which outside money did have an influence—both merit close scrutiny as our body politic continues to adjust to the new campaign finance landscape.