It’s been a record election cycle for many reasons — including the fact that it’s the most expensive, bar none. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, a non-profit research group that tracks money in politics, almost $14 billion was spent on the 2020 races, with about $6.6 billion going towards the presidential campaigns alone. In 2008, the total spent on all federal elections was around $5.3 billion.
Here are some more quick comparisons: Democrats raised a lot more money than Republicans. Senate races are more expensive than House races. In 1990, an average Senate campaign spent $3.87 million. In 2018, it was $15.75 million. Joe Biden's campaign had raised almost $1.4 billion as of October, while Donald Trump's campaign had raised almost $864 million, according to CRP.
“Typically, the better-funded candidate is victorious,” says Sarah Bryner, director of research and strategy at the Center for Responsive Politics. Senate races tend to show a little more “variance,” Bryner says, but “in your typical House race, you spend more money, you win.”
Even so, we need to be careful about how we connect elections and money. “I don't think anyone would make the claim that that's a causal effect,” Bryner says. “Money goes to candidates who people see as likely victors.” It’s something we hear a lot when looking at data: correlation doesn’t equal causation. A district’s strong partisan lean (which can be shaped by voter suppression and gerrymandering) might favor a certain outcome that in turn attracts more funding. Ahead, we looked into the money behind some of the key Congressional races of 2020.
Currently, the Senate is composed of 53 Republicans, 45 Democrats, and two Independents. This year, there were 35 Senate seats up for election. On average, challengers who defeated incumbents in 2020 spent around $8,255,462 more than their opponents.
Most expensive race - South Carolina
The South Carolina race between Republican incumbent Lindsey Graham and Democratic challenger Jaime Harrison is the most expensive Senate race in history. Harrison raised an astounding $107,568,737 while Graham raised $72,690,495 — but it wasn’t enough to overturn a Republican stronghold where Black voters, in particular, have long been targets of voter suppression.
The correlation between money and likelihood of winning is also affected by who is donating and why they’re motivated to do so. About 53.6% of Harrison’s campaign funds (over $57 million) came from individual small donors, meaning people who donated $200 or less. “When you're doing [small donations], you're not necessarily doing it because you think that your $25 donation is going to tip the balance,” says Bryner. “It's a case of people wanting to get their voice heard and wanting to do what they can.”
After the passing of Justice Ruth Bader Ginbsurg on September 18th, fears of a conservative justice filling her seat led to a surge of donations. Within a day of Ginsburg’s death, over $71 million had been raised for Democratic campaigns. It was an expression of enthusiasm and frustration — not a bet on the likeliest winners, not a reflection of who would be voting in this race. With 99% of votes reporting, Graham has 54.5% and Harrison has 44.2%.
“The other thing, though, is that it's only been very recently that we've seen this major small donation uptick,” says Bryner. “It's forcing a lot of us to rethink campaign donations. In the past, one of the biggest roadblocks to challengers was money. And right now we're finding that, well, money can be a roadblock.” But it’s not the only one. “There's a diminishing return.”
After his win, Graham showed confidence in a Trump win, saying, “To all the liberals in California and New York, you wasted a lot of money. This is the worst return on investment in the history of American politics.” Later, he announced he was donating $500,000 to Trump’s Official Election Defense Fund.
Second most expensive - Arizona
Republican incumbent Martha McSally raised $55,772,809, but Democrat Mark Kelly — ex-astronaut and husband of former Arizona representative Gabby Giffords — outraised McSally with $88,856,406. In August, McSally joked that supporters should skip a meal to make an extra contribution to her campaign. In 2017, the Cook Political Report’s Partisan Voting Index (PVI), which measures how strongly a state or district leans Republican or Democrat compared to the rest of the country, showed Arizona leaning R+5 — five percentage points more Republican than the national average. But the Cook Political Report this year had Arizona’s senate race and electoral votes leaning blue. Kelly has been called the winner with 51.2% of votes right now, compared to McSally’s 48.8%.
Third most expensive - Kentucky
Incumbent and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell raised $55,500,677, while Democrat Amy McGrath raised $88,098,919. McGrath’s campaign also received a flood of donations after Ginsburg’s death — a fund called Get Mitch Or Die Trying split donations between Democratic Senate races. But the Cook PVI rated this race as likely to go to McConnell. Bryner reminds us that in most of the Senate races, the outcome was ultimately in line with expectations. “People focus on the aberrations — I don't think that Kentucky ever should have been a surprise to anyone,” she says. “I don't think that Texas should have ever been a surprise to anyone. There's nothing here that should be surprising to people who study those states. I think that it's this motivation from activists — on the left, mostly, but also on the right — to nationalize what are essentially state elections.”
Ultimately, McConnell received about 57.8% of votes, and McGrath got 38.2%.
Fourth most expensive - Maine
In the Maine senate race, Republican incumbent Susan Collins won, having raised $26,511,555 while her Democratic opponent Sara Gideon raised $68,577,474. Cook had this race as a toss-up, and though Gideon raised about 2.5 times what Collins did, Collins won about 51.1% of votes. Because Maine has ranked choice voting, if Collins had received 50% or less of total votes, the candidate with the least votes would have been eliminated and the second choice of voters who preferred the eliminated candidate would have been added to the count.
Fifth most expensive - Michigan
In a race that Cook determined as Democrat-leaning, incumbent Gary Peters (D) raised $42,543,692 while Republican John James raised $37,131,873. Peters kept his seat, but it was a close race, with Peters getting 49.8% and James getting 48.3%.
House races tend to be less expensive, but the correlation between money and winning is stronger than in the Senate. As of now, almost 90% of House candidates who outspent their opponent have been victorious.
Most expensive - Louisiana District 01
Republican incumbent Steve Scalise raised $33,922,332. There’s no FEC data on how much Democrat Lee Ann Dugas raised yet, but it wasn’t a competitive race. As of 2017, the Cook PVI was R+24 for this district, and Scalise won 72.2% of votes.
Second most expensive - New York District 14
Democratic incumbent Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez won with a fund of $17,290,657, about 78% of which came from individual small donors. Republican challenger John C. Cummings raised $9,590,891, with 70% of it coming from small donors. The Cook PVI here is D+29, and Ocasio-Cortez won 68.8% of votes.
Third most expensive - California District 22
Republican incumbent Devin Nunes raised $23,622,011. Democrat Phil Arballo raised just $4,390,937 and lost in this R+8 district. Nunes won, currently leading Arballo 54.2% to 45.8%.
Fourth most expensive - California District 23
Republican incumbent Kevin McCarthy raised $24,191,853. Democrat Kim Mangone raised $1,230,207. This district has a Cook PVI of R+14. McCarthy won and currently has 58.1% of votes compared to Mangone’s 41.9%, with 74% of ballots reporting.
Fifth most expensive - California District 12
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi raised $21,225,607 to secure her reelection with 77.7% of the votes. Her opponent Shahid Buttar, also a Democrat, raised $1,578,920. Pelosi has been the representative for this district since 1987. The Cook PVI is a giant D+37.
These numbers don’t reflect how much these candidates needed to win reelection — it’s a reflection of incumbent advantage, showing how much easier it is for politicians with name recognition to amass more funds.
Races where more money didn’t equal a win
Sen. Doug Jones, the Democratic incumbent in Alabama, lost to Republican Tommy Tuberville. Jones raised $14,299,888; Tuberville, just $3,380,243. Jones is an attorney who, in 2001 and 2002, prosecuted two of the white supremacists who bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham in 1963. Tuberville is a former college football coach and was once named in a lawsuit alleging that he'd committed financial fraud while managing a hedge fund. Cook had this Senate race as merely leaning Republican, but Tuberville beat Jones about 60 to 40, with 99% of votes counted at time of writing.
In California District 43, incumbent Maxine Waters (D) raised $1,173,264. Her Republican challenger, Joe Collins (R), raised $3,149,779 but lost. The extra money did not offset the Cook PVI of D+29, and Waters received about 72% of votes with 92% reporting.
In Colorado District 03, which Cook rated as leaning Republican, Diane Mitsch Bush (D) raised $4,161,666. Lauren Boebert (R) raised $2,352,039 and beat Bush, and she has about 51.3% of votes right now.
Races that flipped seats with less money
On the (literally) flip side, during the 2020 elections we saw several incumbents losing their seats to challengers who had raised less money than them.
Florida District 26 incumbent Debbie Mucarsel-Powell (D) raised $6,178,239. Winner Carlos Gimenez (R) raised $1,946,504. Cook PVI: D+6
Florida District 27 incumbent Donna Shalala (D) raised $3,405,420. Winner Maria Salazar (R) raised $3,126,831. Cook PVI: D+5
Iowa District 01 incumbent Abby Finkenauer (D) raised $5,308,465. Winner Ashley Hinson (R) raised $4,601,403. Cook PVI: D+1
South Carolina District 01 incumbent Joe Cunningham (D) raised $6,278,942. Winner Nancy Mace (R) raised $4,891,696. Cook PVI: R+10
Minnesota District 07 incumbent Collin Peterson (D) raised $2,284,742. Winner Michelle Fischbach (R) raised $2,205,150. Cook PVI: R+12
New Mexico District 02 incumbent Xochitl Torres Small (D) raised $7,509,987. Winner Yvette Herrell (R) raised $2,498,130. Cook PVI: R+6
Oklahoma District 05 incumbent Kendra Horn (D) raised $5,465,349. Winner Stephanie Bice (R) raised $3,089,972. Cook PVI: R+10
New York District 11 incumbent Max Rose (D) raised $8,350,467 and currently has around 42% of the votes. Nicole Malliotakis (R) raised $3,052,007 and has around 58% of the votes. The race has not officially been called at time of writing. Cook PVI: R+3
Except for Peterson, all of the above incumbents were first-term lawmakers elected during the 2018 “Blue Wave” midterms.
Is your donation wasted if the campaign doesn’t win?
Bryner’s answer is no. “We live in a zero-sum world for our elections, but that money is not lost,” she says. “It goes into the losing party, helps build up down-tickets. [The Harrison campaign], for example, they’re registering voters, reminding people that the Democratic party exists in South Carolina, they’re putting a national face to that party.” Unused funds from a campaign may be donated to charity, go toward future runs for that candidate or other candidates, or pay off outstanding campaign debts.
If you want to see your money go further, you can also try prioritizing early donations. While money is often a predictor but not a determinant of general elections, research has shown that early donations have a sizable impact on who wins primaries. Bryner notes that EMILY’s List, a PAC that backs Democratic women candidates who are pro-abortion rights, once stood for Early Money Is Like Yeast. “As in, if you get money early, it rises, it can have more impact,” she says. “And I think that's probably true — that's what builds your infrastructure. There’s only so much that an extra million dollars in the last two weeks of a campaign can do.”
Why Georgia turned blue
For other insights into how to maximize the impact of your political donations (if you’re not a millionaire, that is), look to Georgia. The two Georgia Senate races were so close that they’ll go to runoff elections in January. Incumbent David Perdue (R) raised $21,102,564 and currently has about 50% of votes. Jon Ossoff (D) raised $32,311,482 and has about 48% of votes.
In the other GA Senate race, incumbent Kelly Loeffler (R) raised $28,206,336, while her opponent Raphael Warnock (D) raised $21,729,915. Warnock currently has 33% of votes while Loeffler has 26%.
These races have become so competitive thanks to Georgian organizations like Fair Fight, founded by Democrat Stacey Abrams, that serve as a bulwark against voter suppression. The New Georgia Project — also started by Abrams — and the Black Voters Matter Fund, founded by LaTosha Brown, ushered in a wave of voter registration. Since 2018, Georgia has seen over 800,000 new registered voters.
“I think that, if anything, this election has taught us that community groups on the ground, like in Georgia, can be more significant in getting money to the people who need it, as opposed to donating directly to a campaign, especially if you're not from that region,” says Bryner. That would mean donating to grassroots organizations rather than, say, the Lincoln Project.
A need for campaign clarity
While it’s still too early to draw firm conclusions on why certain races did or didn’t succeed, it’s obvious that a grotesque amount of money is going to political campaigns. “One of the biggest problems in our campaign system right now is the ability for super PACs and other outside groups to take in extremely large donations from entities like LLCs — limited liability corporations,” says Bryner. “And we, the public, have very little knowledge of where that money actually is coming from. So what we would see on the disclosure form is like, ABC LLC gave $1 million to Americans For A Bright America, or whatever, and we don't know what that is — an oil company, an environmental group?”
And while the share of small donations has grown rapidly in recent years, it still only accounts for 22% of all campaign contributions. Much of the political backing in our country comes from extremely wealthy millionaires and billionaires.
“With this much money going into the system, it's going to be all the more important and all the more difficult to track and make sure that there's no undue influence being exerted by the people who made this the most expensive election in history by a long margin,” says Bryner.