by Rick Henderson
Editor-in-Chief, Carolina Journal
Using $111 million as the total spent (to date) by the candidates, campaigns, and independent groups in the race between GOP Sen.-elect Thom Tillis, outgoing Democratic incumbent Kay Hagan, and Libertarian Sean Haugh, reporter Mark Binker finds the combatants spent $16.76 per registered voter and $38.48 per vote.
But wait: The $111 million spent in the current cycle includes spending by candidates, campaigns, and independent groups. Take out the so-called “dark money,” and spending shrinks to about $32 million. The McCain-Feingold campaign law pushed most election spending away from candidates and parties and toward super PACs, 527 groups and other independent organs. Spending by independent groups in the pre-McCain-Feingold era could be difficult to track, and the money can’t be coordinated by the candidates, so we’ve chosen to focus on the money (and the messages) controlled by the people who put their names on the ballot.
Making a clean comparison of spending by candidate and candidate-controlled groups in 2014 paints a much different picture. The Hagan-Haugh-Tillis camps spent about $4.83 per registered voter — placing this year’s election race 10th of the 15 Senate contests that have occurred since 1972, when North Carolina became a competitive, two-party state.
Throw in the other money, and the 2014 Senate race would become the second-most expensive in state history, barely surpassing the 1990 election between incumbent GOP Sen. Jesse Helms and Democratic nominee Harvey Gantt. As Carolina Journal’s Barry Smith reported last month, in inflation-adjusted terms, the Helms-Gantt campaigns spent $16.11 per registered voter.
But of course, that comparison would exclude the spending by the Congressional Club in the Helms races, and by other outside groups in other contests, so it’s difficult to say how costly they were.
Suffice it to say that the legendary 1984 contest between Helms and Democratic Gov. Jim Hunt remains the costliest in state history, with the candidates and their campaigns spending $20.41 per registered voter. This year’s pales in comparison.