Another excuse busted: Democrats are outspending GOP in this cycle

Democrats have spent more time setting up their excuses for failure than they have campaigning to avoid it, it seems, and their top choice for an excuse is that a flood of GOP money overwhelmed their accomplishments.  That has the elegance of holding themselves as victims while at the same time hinting at the most sinister of motives of their opposition.  Unfortunately for Democrats, it has one small little problem — it’s simply not true, as Politico reported yesterday:

It’s true that conservative third-party groups are outspending their Democratic rivals. But the Democrats still have a sizable cash advantage in their party committees – making this year’s elections a lot more of a fair fight than Vice President Joe Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi let on.

So far, the latest figures show that the Democratic Party machinery has outraised its Republican counterpart in this campaign cycle by almost $270 million.

And even when outside spending on television advertising and direct mail is added to the mix, Republicans still haven’t closed the gap.

The money race totals come to $856 million for the Democratic committees and their aligned outside groups, compared to $677 for their Republican adversaries, based on figures compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics.

Included in that total: conservative groups have spent $169 million on ads attacking Democratic House and Senate candidates, compared to $80 million by liberal-leaning groups, based on figures as of Tuesday morning.

The New York Times concurs in an article today:

Lost in all of the attention paid to the heavy spending by Republican-oriented independent groups in this year’s midterm elections is that Democratic candidates have generally wielded a significant head-to-head financial advantage over their Republican opponents in individual competitive races.

Even with a recent surge in fund-raising for Republican candidates, Democratic candidates have outraised their opponents over all by more than 30 percent in the 109 House races The New York Times has identified as in play. And Democratic candidates have significantly outspent their Republican counterparts over the last few months in those contests, $119 million to $79 million.

Republican-leaning third-party groups, however, many of them financed by large, unrestricted donations that are not publicly disclosed, have swarmed into the breach, pouring more than $60 million into competitive races since July, about 80 percent more than the Democratic-leaning groups have reported spending.

The Washington Post tries playing catch-up to the meme fail by casting the news as Democrats playing catch-up:

Unions and other Democratic interest groups are rapidly closing the gap with their conservative opponents in spending on the midterm elections, using fresh support from well-heeled donors to quicken the pace of expenditures in the final days of the campaign.

Democratic leaders from President Obama on down have assailed the spending by outside conservative groups, complaining that the business lobby and other Republican allies are pouring millions of dollars into the election as they shield donors from public scrutiny.

But now independent groups that support Democrats – including unions, environmental groups and new players – are fast gaining ground, often while using some of the same techniques condemned by Democrats. The strategies include using money from nonprofit organizations that can keep their donors secret and tapping into union dues to pay for unlimited attack ads.

Nearly four of every 10 dollars spent by independent groups last week was aimed at helping Democratic candidates, according to a Washington Post analysis of campaign-finance disclosure filings. The number is a dramatic improvement from just a few weeks earlier, when Democratic allies were being outspent by 7 to 1, the data show.

Why this “poor, poor Democrats” meme has succeeded at all is curious indeed.  Democrats control the levers of power in Washington, which means that lobbyists will naturally gravitate toward them.  With the GOP running on a “shrink government” platform, the public-employee unions have big incentives to spend massively — and they have, with figures that appear to have avoided the Times’ notice.  Three unions (AFSCME, SEIU, NEA) have pitched in a combined $171 million on behalf of Democrats this year as they try to prevent Republicans from trimming the federal payroll.

Besides, when Democrats outspent Republicans in 2006 and 2008, with outside groups favoring Democrats by a 2-1 advantage, no one in the media seemed terribly concerned about the possibility of “foreign influence” or nefarious motives.  Why all of the concern over outside group spending now?  Because it no longer gives Democrats a massive advantage over Republicans, that’s why.  As the Daily Caller reports, Democrats knew this was a cynical ploy when they started using it:

Several Democrats, including in Senate leadership, have told TheDC that the foreign money charge was a stretch. One Democrat Wednesday called it “a bit specious.”

Dee Dee Myers, who was White House press secretary under former President Bill Clinton, said that she thinks “it’s the idea of ‘secret’ money that’s gotten people’s attention.”

It’s hard to imagine that the disclosure issue would have received as much attention if the foreign money charge hadn’t been the match that lit the fire.

Jonathan Collegio, spokesman for American Crossroads, said that “the Democrats invented a false issue in the foreign money accusations to distract from the unemployment figures.”

But the problem with the “secret money” comes from campaign-finance rules, which limit donations and spending, not with the third-party groups that spend it.  Money that would normally flow directly to parties and candidates can no longer go there, and so that money gets routed to organizations with fewer requirements for disclosure.  As a result, as Hotline reported this week, parties and candidates get less control of the message, for better or worse:

With nonparty campaign organizations spending millions on television ads to attack rival candidates this year, Democratic and Republican operatives agree that the centrality of their respective national party committees is waning, according the results of the latest National Journal Insiders Poll. Asked whether the rise of nonparty spending in this midterm cycle will erode the importance of their national party committees in future elections, 71 percent of the 109 Democratic Insiders who participated in the poll this week said that it would. Similarly, 65 percent of the 106 Republican Insiders who responded said that their national campaign committees will lose some importance as a result of the rise of the nonparty groups.

“It is simply a matter of math,” said one Democratic Insider. “The percentage of all political dollars spent by the national committees will decrease.” A Republican Insider agreed: “Once large donors get used to not giving through the parties, they won’t go back.”

Democratic and Republican Insiders also attributed the decline of the parties to changes in the campaign finance laws which have placed restrictions on the ability of the national party committees to raise funds, especially so-called soft money — unlimited contributions from wealthy individuals and money from union and corporate treasuries. That has been an article of faith among Republicans since the enactment of the McCain-Feingold legislation in 2002.

For some, a move away from party control of messaging may be a feature, rather than a bug, but it’s not what campaign-finance regulation architects had in mind.  If more transparency is desired, then Congress should take the limits off of fundraising for candidates and parties, which have to regularly disclose donor information, and put the responsibility for messaging back on the parties and candidates themselves.