For all the talk of the growing role of money in American politics, the nation's congressional candidates appear to be on track to spend less on their campaigns for the second straight election cycle, according to official data.
The nearly $1.38 billion spent by the 2,382 House and Senate candidates seeking office in 2008 was almost 3 percent below the cumulative tab for the 2006 elections, according to the Federal Election Commission. And the $1.42 billion in receipts — including donations and even overpayment refunds from vendors — represented a 1 percent decline compared with the previous election cycle, according to the Federal Election Commission.
The agency has offered no official explanation for the drop in 2008, when candidates Barack Obama and John McCain raised a record $1.8 billion for their presidential race — four times more than in 2004.
Private analysts have offered their own explanations for the drop and about where the trend might go. The recession, which hurt donors in both parties, and the meteoric rise of free social networking sites such as Facebook to replace traditional paid media advertising are seen as prime causes.
Times remain tough, and the early signs are that the 2009-2010 cycle will also not be setting any new records for congressional political spending.
Though 2010 has no presidential race, cash on hand for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is significantly down compared with the same period in 2008. The group has $26 million compared with $44.3 million for 2008, according to information supplied to The Washington Times. The National Republican Congressional Committee has $9.9 million, compared with $7.2 million in 2008.
Campaign finance experts said the recession had cut into how much supporters were willing and able to contribute to the 2007-08 campaigns, which coincided with the start of the worst economic downturn in decades.
"Clearly that's when the economy went down," said Dick Wadhams, chairman of the Colorado Republican Party. "People couldn't give money."
He noted that the tightest 2008 races still proved very expensive, particularly the unsuccessful Colorado Senate campaign he managed for former Rep. Bob Schaffer against then-Rep. Mark Udall, a Democrat.
Mr. Schaffer spent $7.2 million and Mr. Udall spent $13 million, compared with the average cost of $8.7 million to win a Senate seat in 2008, according to FEC records.
"That was a competitive race, as you know, and Senate races cost more," Mr. Wadhams said.
Experts say that Republican losses in 2008 were in part from the excitement generated by Mr. Obama's candidacy and by his unprecedented fund-raising machine, which may have inhibited spending by congressional and other candidates of both parties.
"Maybe some of the [Democratic] candidates rode on the coattails of the massive amount Mr. Obama was spending," said Jessica Levinson, director of political reform for the Los Angeles-based Center for Governmental Studies. "And that race really sucked the air right out of the room. There could have been less need — or reason — to spend as much money as in 2006 because there's only a finite amount of time a voter can spend on politics."
Ms. Levinson pointed out the 2008 races also marked the real emergence of social media networks on the Internet in politics and fundraising.
"Facebook, blogging, e-blasts — it's free media and has the potential to get bigger as candidates look for less-expensive ways to reach voters," she said.
But while congressional incumbents and challengers hold the line on spending, the same restraint is not evident for outside groups. Campaign finance experts are watching closely to determine whether the recent Supreme Court ruling striking down some federal restraints on political advertising by private independent groups will affect expenditures in the upcoming midterm elections.
The nonpartisan Campaign Media Analysis Group in a new study found that independent political groups have spent $62 million on political advertising so far in the 2009-2010 electoral cycle, triple the amount compared with the same point four years ago.
The Wall Street Journal reported this week that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, labor interests such as the AFL-CIO and interest groups from the Sierra Club on the left to the new American Crossroads on the right are promising to spend freely this year as Republicans make a push to reclaim control of Congress.
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