Winning or defending a seat in Congress is more expensive than ever. And among Democrats at least, it’s especially pricey for Congressional candidates who run as “moderates.”
In 2012, self-described “moderate” Democrats in the House – members of either the New Democrat or Blue Dog coalitions – directly spent an average of $1.91 million on their campaigns, according to an analysis of data from OpenSecrets.org by Republic 3.0. In contrast, members of the liberal Progressive Caucus spent an average of $1.24 million on their races.
Counting all expenditures – including those by challengers and outside groups – the differences were even greater. Campaigns in these moderate districts cost an average total of $5.1 million in 2012, while total spending in liberal seats averaged $2.0 million.
Even among veteran members – for whom incumbency gets cheaper to maintain – moderates spent significantly more than liberals. Moderate House Democrats first elected in 2000 or earlier spent an average of $1.51 million in 2012, versus an average of $1.04 million for equally veteran liberals. Total spending in these races averaged $2.89 million for veteran moderates, versus $1.47 million for veteran liberals.
Not surprisingly, however, freshmen moderates spent the most of all, averaging $2.53 million in direct spending in 2012, compared to $1.89 million for freshmen liberals. In these races, total spending averaged $8.49 million for moderate campaigns, versus $4.1 million for liberals.
Ten most expensive campaigns in 2012
House moderates versus House liberals
(New Democrat or Blue Dog Coalition)
|District||Candidate||Total spending||District||Candidate||Total spending|
|FL-18||Patrick Murphy||$29,491,024||MN-08||Rick Nolan||$12,736,243|
|CA-52||Scott Peters||$15,649,122||MA-06||John Tierney||$10,311,216|
|CA-07||Ami Bera||$14,711,869||FL-22||Lois Frankel||$7,514,288|
|IL-11||Bill Foster||$14,247,076||NV-04||Steven Horsford||$6,494,469|
|IL-10||Brad Schneider||$14,183,723||NY-25||Louise Slaughter||$6,386,131|
|TX-23||Pete Gallego||$11,619,025||MA-04||Joe Kennedy III||$4,953,235|
|NY-18||Sean Patrick Maloney||$10,883,223||FL-09||Alan Grayson||$4,819,613|
|NH-02||Anne Kuster||$10,813,439||RI-01||David Cicilline||$4,794,549|
|AZ-01||Ann Kirkpatrick||$10,409,695||IA-02||David Loebsack||$3,592,882|
|CO-07||Ed Perlmutter||$10,168,265||CA-41||Mark Takano||$3,302,699|
*Total spending includes direct spending by both Democratic and Republican candidates and spending by outside groups.
These figures update an earlier analysis by the Progressive Policy Institute of the 2010 election, which showed the same trends.
Given that moderate members are much more likely to be in competitive districts, it’s not surprising that moderate campaigns cost more. Moderate districts are more likely to be suburban, meaning a larger geographical area to cover, along with the expense of buying ads in several media markets at once.
Moderates are also more likely to face challengers from both the left and the right, in primaries and in the general election. These challengers are also more likely to be relatively well-heeled. For example, Republican challengers in 2012 races spent an average of $1.29 million in their efforts to unseat New Democrats and Blue Dogs, while challengers of progressive candidates spent an average of $357,738.
Campaign spending in moderate versus liberal Democratic House districts, 2012
(New Democrat or Blue Dog Coalition districts)
(Progressive Caucus districts)
|Average direct spending by candidate (Democrat)||$1.91 million||$1.24 million|
|Average direct spending by candidate (Republican)||$1.29 million||$357,738|
|Average total candidate spending||$3.2 million||$1.6 million|
|Average outside spending||$1.95 million||$398,114|
|Average total spending (candidate spending plus outside money)||$5.1 million||$2.0 million|
Competitive races are also much more likely to draw “independent expenditure” spending by outside groups.
In 2012, outside groups spent a grand total of $113.1 million on the 58 races in New Democrat and Blue Dog districts, versus a grand total of $26.7 million on 68 races in Progressive Caucus districts. On average, outside groups spent $1.95 million on moderate campaigns, compared to $398,114 for progressive races.
Without question, more competition in politics would be a good thing. According to political analyst Charlie Cook, the 2012 election left Congress with just 90 “swing” seats, down from 164 in 1998.
These numbers, however, show that the burden of competition falls disproportionately on moderate districts. And, ironically enough, the spending in these districts is often aimed at unseating moderates and replacing them with more ideologically-driven candidates. In Georgia’s 12th district, for example, the ultra-conservative Americans for Tax Reform spent more than $1.2 million opposing Blue Dog Democrat John Barrow, including half a million dollars in ad buys.
The added burden for moderate candidates also comes with other costs.
For one thing, it means moderate candidates spend more time fundraising than their safer counterparts, which means less time for the job of governing and developing policy expertise. And because of their perennial vulnerability, it’s harder for them to rise in the seniority-based structure of the House and accede to the chairmanships of powerful committees – they may simply not survive long enough to get there.
The “centrist premium” also increases the barriers to entry for potential candidates, who may be discouraged from ever running in the first place by the high price of admission. As it is, the political class is increasingly less representative of middle-class Americans.
Finally, moderates may pay an ideological price as well. Because moderates are more likely to attract outside spending—typically funded by interests from the extreme left or right—moderates may face intense pressure to move away from the center in their policy views, which only contributes to polarization.
Obviously, the answer isn’t to reduce competition for House seats – if anything, more competition is badly needed. But it’s yet another sign of the dysfunction of our current political system that the burden of competition falls so heavily on a shrinking group of moderates. Many have argued that the nation’s campaign finance system helps institutionalize ideological polarization – here is yet more proof.
- 2012 campaign spending in Progressive Caucus districts
- 2012 campaign spending in New Democrat and Blue Dog districts