Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

What Americans could have bought instead of a $4 billion election

By Chris Frates, CNN investigative correspondent
updated 9:18 AM EST, Mon November 3, 2014
  • An estimated $4 billion will be spent on the midterm elections - a record
  • One quarter of that - $1 billion - will be "dark money" spent by anonymous sources
  • What else could Americans have bought?

(CNN) -- Tuesday's elections are projected to be the most expensive midterms in history - costing almost $4 billion, according to Center for Responsive Politics, a non-partisan group that tracks money in politics.

Four billion bucks is a boatload of cash. It's 10 times more than the government has committed to fighting Ebola in West Africa and would be enough to build 100 treatment centers and run them for years.

That kind of money could also buy 25 F-18 fighter jets, pay for more than 12,000 students' K-12 education and have enough left over to produce a summer blockbuster.

Or, maybe it makes more sense to think about elections for what they are - glorified marketing campaigns. It took Apple, the world's most valuable company, the last four years or so to spend four billion advertising dollars.

Pumpkin lattes and the NC Senate race

Now, with some sense of the scale for the cash being thrown around, let's take a look at how it's being spent to influence how voters think about this election.

The bulk of that money is being spent by parties and candidates on the nuts and bolts of campaigning, things like staff salaries, advertising and get-out-the-vote efforts. But $1 billion of it is being spent by outside groups not formally tied to candidates or parties. But that's not to say they don't have a dog in the fight.

"Outside spenders are trying to buy influence. This year the Senate is up for grabs, we see massive spending in these competitive races. These people want to have their guy win, and they want their guy to know that they helped him win," said Ian Vandewalker of the Brennan Center for Justice, which supports campaign finance reform.

And much of that money comes from groups that don't disclose all their donors -- known in politics as dark money groups. They've grown in popularity since the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling loosened campaign finance rules to allow groups to raise unlimited money from secret donors and campaign for or against candidates.

Vandewalker looked at nine races that could decide control of the Senate and found that by the end of September more than half of the roughly $160 million spent by outside groups came from dark money groups.

In Kentucky, a dark money group working to re-elect Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell has already spent about $7.5 million, making the Kentucky Opportunity Coalition "the biggest-spending, single-candidate dark-money group in the history of Senate elections," Vandewalker wrote in his report on election spending.

Because Kentucky Opportunity Coalition can take unlimited contributions to support McConnell, it essentially circumvents federal contribution limits, Vandewalker argues. Donors can give the max contribution of $5,200, which is publicly disclosed, directly to McConnell's campaign and then give unlimited secret money to Kentucky Opportunity Coalition.

The problem, Vandewalker said, is "voters really don't know who is trying to influence their votes on Election Day and who is trying to influence the elected officials who are going to take office after Election Day".

Curt Devine contributed to this report

Part of complete coverage on
See the full results for who won the Senate, House and governor midterm elections.
updated 9:26 PM EST, Wed November 5, 2014
Attention Hillary Clinton, Jeb Bush, Rand Paul, Chris Christie, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz and everyone else "seriously considering" a run for president.
updated 6:18 PM EST, Thu November 6, 2014
You know that Republican doctor who got one of his patients pregnant and then demanded that she get an abortion? Yeah, he won.
updated 3:20 PM EST, Wed November 5, 2014
The 2014 midterm elections brought a historic victory for Republicans, handing the GOP its largest congressional majority since World War II.
updated 10:10 AM EST, Wed November 5, 2014
It was a tough night for Democrats -- who will be looking for a leader for 2016 -- and a big night for the GOP -- who may have a few more names to consider.
updated 10:43 AM EST, Wed November 5, 2014
A Republican tide ripped the Senate away from Democrats, giving the GOP full control of Congress and the power to pin down President Obama.
updated 9:47 PM EST, Tue November 4, 2014
The House of Representatives remained solidly in Republican hands after Tuesday's midterm election.
updated 7:22 AM EST, Wed November 5, 2014
Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell has won re-election in Kentucky, staving off Democratic challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes, according to a CNN projection.
updated 2:06 AM EST, Wed November 5, 2014
Sen. Ted Cruz lauded the Republican Senate takeover, but shied away from endorsing Sen. Mitch McConnell to lead the new majority.
updated 11:31 AM EST, Wed November 5, 2014
CNN asked commentators for views on the results of the midterm elections, in which the GOP took back the Senate and retained control of the House.
updated 8:17 PM EST, Wed November 5, 2014
South Carolina's Tim Scott became the first African-American senator to win election in the South since Reconstruction.
updated 2:39 PM EST, Wed November 5, 2014
Voters in Oregon and D.C. have voted to approve sweeping pro-marijuana legalization while voters in Florida gave the thumbs down.
updated 7:59 AM EST, Wed November 5, 2014
Republicans continued their dominance of governor's mansions when a number of GOP leaders fought off stiff challenges from Democrats.
updated 11:14 PM EST, Tue November 4, 2014
Republican David Perdue has won the race for Georgia's U.S. Senate seat occupied by retiring GOP Sen. Saxby Chambliss.
updated 1:09 AM EST, Wed November 5, 2014
First-term Democratic incumbent North Carolina Sen. Kay Hagan lost in a tight contest against GOP challenger Thom Tillis.
updated 10:09 PM EST, Tue November 4, 2014
Republican Rep. Tom Cotton has defeated Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor in Arkansas, according to a CNN projection.
updated 7:21 AM EST, Wed November 5, 2014
Republican Scott Brown lost his second Senate race in two election cycles, failing to unseat Sen. Jeanne Shaheen in New Hampshire.
updated 7:51 AM EST, Wed November 5, 2014
Former Gov. Charlie Crist conceded Florida's close gubernatorial race against GOP Gov. Rick Scott.
updated 6:49 PM EST, Tue November 4, 2014
A majority of Americans are dissatisfied with President Obama's administration and GOP leaders, according to exit polls released and analyzed by CNN.
updated 9:47 PM EST, Tue November 4, 2014
Take a look around the country in our gallery as America votes.
Who's giving to outside groups? It's not just candidates and parties spending the cash.