When U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis narrowly won reelection against Cal Cunningham, the two candidates had collectively spent $78 million. That’s a large number. But it was dwarfed by the $221 million spent on the race by groups other than the two campaigns.
It has been widely reported that the roughly $300 million spent on the Tillis-Cunningham contest made it the most expensive Senate campaign in American history. That much appears to be true — at least until we discover the final tally for the two special elections now underway in Georgia.
But independent expenditures are the main story here. The money the two campaigns spent themselves was not sky-high for a Senate race, when put in the proper context.
Candidates and independent groups alike raise and spend money in order to motivate core constituencies to turn out and to persuade swing voters to come their way. Those dollars buy ads. They deploy field workers. They pay for staffing and resources to generate “earned media.” They pay for phone, mail, and digital messages.
In other words, they are marketing expenses. To put them in proper context, you have to consider both the size of the audience and the purchasing power of the dollar.
There are about 7.4 million registered voters in North Carolina. The Tillis and Cunningham campaigns, then, spent a collective $10.57 per potential voter. By comparison, in the famous 1984 Senate race between Jesse Helms and Jim Hunt, the two candidates spent a combined $26 million. But there were only about 3 million voters at the time. Adjusting for registration and inflation, the Helms-Hunt race cost $21.54 per voter.
Again, considering only spending by candidates, Tillis-Cunningham appears to be the fourth-most expensive in North Carolina history, after the 1984 Helms-Hunt race, the 1990 Helms-Harvey Gantt race, and the 1978 Helms-John Ingram race. What comes in fifth? The 1996 Helms-Harvey Gantt rematch.
The common denominator, obviously, is Jesse Helms. His high national profile was a strong motivator for donors on both sides.
Admittedly, to say this year’s spending wasn’t especially notable if we exclude $221 million in independent expenditures is akin to scrutinizing the Washington newspapers for reviews of the April 14, 1865 performance of Our American Cousin. The $300 million total for North Carolina’s 2020 race comes to $40.37 per voter.
What I think we should consider, however, is that given North Carolina’s competitiveness and the close margins likely to persist in the partisan makeup of the U.S. Senate, our state is going to feature highly expensive races for many cycles to come. What we need to decide is how best to hold political actors responsible for the money that will be raised and spent.
You might challenge my assumption. “This is outrageous! We should just prevent anyone from spending that kind of money!” I would gently but firmly respond that what you seek is impossible in a free society — in part because even that $300 million figure I supplied at the beginning of this column is an underestimate.
What about the value of the time and space media companies devoted to Tillis-Cunningham and the other races likely to determine control of the U.S. Senate? Countless stories. Many hours on national news channels. Some of that expenditure was roughly balanced. But not on, say, Fox News or MSNBC.
In a free society, government can’t just tell people to shut up. Nor can government divide private organizations into categories, allowing some but not others to spend money on politics. Even if that were permitted under the First Amendment, powerful interest groups would simply purchase media outlets to protect themselves (keep in mind that many newspapers, including several in North Carolina, were originally founded for both partisan and commercial purposes).
Our current campaign-finance laws limit how much candidates can raise. That pushes political dollars into less-transparent, less-accountable places. Deregulation, combined with instant reporting of contributions, would help put candidates back in charge of their own races.
It wouldn’t make campaigns less expensive, though. That’s not in the cards.