Conor Lamb’s Win in Gerrymandered District Shows That Dark Money Won’t Save the GOP

Post-election reports show that Republicans spent more than $105 a vote in their losing effort in Pennsylvania’s special congressional election on Tuesday. Analysis of this spending has exposed a massive flaw in the GOP’s campaign strategy for the midterm elections.

The Republican strategy is very dependent on so-called “dark money” which comes from political action committees (PACs) funded by big donors.  The Democratic strategy is much more focused on fundraising by and for the candidates themselves. This appears to be the better strategy as the massive amounts of dark money spent by PACs on behalf of Republican Rick Saccone didn’t help as much as anticipated. 

This loss was especially shocking to the Republican establishment who knew that the PA 18th district is an extremely gerrymandered district the Republicans were never supposed to lose.  In fact it is so gerrymandered that the U.S. Supreme Court said it was illegal and must be changed before the November elections.

While $2.6 million was spent by outside Democratic groups for Lamb, $10.7 million spent by outside Republican groups in support of Saccone.

This chart shows the difference in amounts of money spent by outside groups on behalf of the two campaigns:

Image: CNN, via screen capture

According to CNN, here is a detailed breakdown of where the dark money came from:

On behalf of Rick Saccone:

  • $3.5 million from the Congressional Leadership Fund (CLF), a Paul Ryan-aligned super PAC
  • $3.5 million from the National Republican Campaign Committee (NRCC)
  • $1.3 million from the RNC
  • $1.1 million from America First Action, a Trump-aligned group
  • $560,000 from 45Committee, another Trump-aligned group
  • $513,000 from a conservative super PAC called Ending Spending
  • $100,000 from the Club for Growth Action Fund, which regularly helps GOP candidates

On behalf of Conor Lamb:

  • $312,000 from the DCCC, but CNN cites “a Democratic source familiar with the strategy” who says the group has invested more than $1 million in the past 3 months
  • $426,000 of that $1 million investment was transferred to the Pennsylvania Democratic Party, per CNN.
  • $340,000 each from VoteVets.org and Patriot Majority
  • $250,000 from End Citizens United
  • $112,000 from the Service Employees International Union Committee (SEIU) on Political Education
  • $100,000 from Progressive Turnout Project and Working America, two PACs

Spending by outside groups is not thought to be a good indicator of which direction an election will go.  Simply put, money doesn’t necessarily translate into votes. This is especially true when the donors are anonymous PAC donors from other places. This is a flaw in the Republican “big money” strategy. It doesn’t always work.

“Outside groups can spend any money they want but the question is at the end of the day are voters still open to their messages or whether they’ve already made up their minds,” said Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP) “The outside groups are not going to be ones the pulling the lever to cast a vote.”

The outside fundraising and spending of the “dark money” that took place in Pennsylvania’s special election are similar to what is going on throughout the country.  This illustrates the differences between the two parties. Democratic contributions have mostly gone to candidates while Republican money mostly goes to outside groups.

If the results on Tuesday are any indication this Republican strategy could foretell a big problem for the GOP in the midterm elections this fall.