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 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

“Moderate” candidates
(New Democrat or Blue Dog Coalition)
Liberal candidates
(Progressive Caucus)
DistrictCandidateTotal spendingDistrictCandidateTotal spending
FL-18Patrick Murphy$29,491,024MN-08Rick Nolan$12,736,243
CA-52Scott Peters$15,649,122MA-06John Tierney$10,311,216
CA-07Ami Bera$14,711,869FL-22Lois Frankel$7,514,288
IL-11Bill Foster$14,247,076NV-04Steven Horsford$6,494,469
IL-10Brad Schneider$14,183,723NY-25Louise Slaughter$6,386,131
TX-23Pete Gallego$11,619,025MA-04Joe Kennedy III$4,953,235
NY-18Sean Patrick Maloney$10,883,223FL-09Alan Grayson$4,819,613
NH-02Anne Kuster$10,813,439RI-01David Cicilline$4,794,549
AZ-01Ann Kirkpatrick$10,409,695IA-02David Loebsack$3,592,882
CO-07Ed Perlmutter$10,168,265CA-41Mark 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.

Quick Facts
Campaign spending in moderate versus liberal Democratic House districts, 2012

“Moderate” campaigns
(New Democrat or Blue Dog Coalition districts)
Liberal campaigns
(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.

Outside groups spent a grand total of $113.1 million on races in New Democrat and Blue Dog districts, versus a grand total of $26.7 million in Progressive Caucus districts.

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” exacts other tolls on moderates – more time spent on fundraising, more pressure from ideologically-driven outside groups, and higher barriers to entry.

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.

A Note on Methodology

This analysis compares campaign expenditures between “moderate” and “liberal” candidates among House Democrats in the 2012 elections.

This analysis focuses on House Democrats for several reasons:

  1. Because of the ideological makeup of the party coalitions, there are currently many more moderates among House Democrats than among House Republicans;
  2. House districts are more ideologically cohesive than entire states; and
  3. The House, unlike the Senate, has a variety of self-described coalitions based on ideology.

To avoid independent judgments on whether a particular member is a “moderate” or a “liberal,” this analysis used membership in the New Democratic Coalition or the Blue Dog Coalition as a proxy for “moderate,” and membership in the Progressive Caucus as a proxy for “liberal.”

To avoid double counting, three members with joint memberships in the New Democrat Coalition and Progressive Caucus (Reps. Jared Polis (CO-02), Jim Moran (VA-08), Rush Holt (NJ-12) and Andre Carson (IN-07) were excluded. Total disbursements include only those made by the Democratic and Republican nominees in the general election and exclude any expenditures made by other candidates in primaries. This analysis is based on spending figures compiled by from data reported to the Federal Election Commission.

The Progressive Caucus analysis also includes Rep. John Tierney, who was a member of the Progressive Caucus in 2012 but is no longer listed on the Progressive Caucus site.