Think political spending got 'reformed?' Just try running for Senate

December 05, 2005

Anyone interested in joining the United States Senate next year had better make the following New Year's resolution -- pile up at least $10 million.

That's now the minimum price tag for most U.S. Senate seats, according to projections by a political research team at the University of Washington based on recent spending patterns.

Setting the stage for the current explosion in political spending was 2005's record outlay in local and state races, recently filed campaign reports show. The leading symbol of that might be Michael Bloomberg, who shelled out $68 million to win re-election as mayor of New York City.

"While Bloomberg's personal wealth certainly was a factor in that particular spree, we're seeing a spike in political spending at almost every level," said Philip Howard, a UW assistant professor of communication. "One thing this shows is that the campaign-finance reforms haven't begun to dry up the flow of money into the system."

In other words, the political arms race continues.

"Senate campaigns have to be ready to pay big bucks for television advertising, the largest and fastest growing chunk of campaign spending," added Howard, "and even though the reforms have brought some transparency to campaign contributions, the amount of money going to independent groups that do their own politicking for or against a candidate is also on the rise."

The UW analysis indicates that it is no longer possible, in any state, to mount a credible quest for a Senate seat with a war chest of less than $3 million.

And in some states (including California, Florida, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Washington and Wisconsin), the UW researchers found that a candidate won't be competitive in 2006 with less than $10 million to spend.

If the trend holds, aspiring senators in medium-sized Washington state will need to raise at least $13 million. Incumbent Democratic Sen. Patty Murray spent that much to stay in office in 2004, and with nearly a year to go before Election Day, Sen. Maria Cantwell has already raised $10 million for her re-election campaign.

The projections for 2006 are based on Federal Election Commission campaign expenditure reports in 2000, 2002 and 2004. Researchers at, a research group of Howard's students in political communication and technology, used a set of conservative, average and extreme assumptions to estimate the range of campaign costs for the 2006 U.S. Senate races.

Combined, Senate candidates in 2004 spent more than $400 million on their campaigns. In 2006, winners and losers will likely spend around $450 million, Howard said.

One-third of Senate seats are up for election every two years. Of the 102 Senate races so far this decade, 86 (more than four of every five) have been won by the bigger spender.

Since most Senate campaigns are won by incumbents, the next step was to compare the cost of winning a seat for incumbents and challengers. Three averages were calculated: the amount of money spent by challengers who took a seat from an incumbent senator, the amount spent by the incumbent to retain his or her seat, and the amount spent by the top two challengers in Senate races without an incumbent.

On average over the last three election cycles, challengers who took a seat from an incumbent spent almost twice as much as incumbents who successfully defended their seat.

(To see the projections for the Senate races that will be in play in 2006, see the spreadsheets at

Howard's group calculated (see accompanying graph) the likely average range for Senate campaign expenditures. The most conservative assumption is that to win in 2006, a candidate must spend at least as much as the runner-up in previous elections. The most extreme scenario is that campaigns will spend as much as the biggest spenders in recent years, with the same incremental increase as in recent campaign cycles. The "average" scenario is that campaigns will spend about as much as the recent winners in their state. (All the campaign costs have been adjusted to present dollar value.).

Excluded from parts of the analysis were two highly unusual races that took place in 2000: John Corzine's record-setting, $63 million New Jersey campaign, and the $30 million campaign that resulted in Hillary Clinton representing New York. Spending totals in those elections were at least four times the standard deviation from the national average, and would distort the overall results.
For more information, contact Philip Howard, at (206) 612-9911 or Student researchers on the project included Teresa Causin, (206) 854-3753 or, and Mychelle Miller, at (360) 620-8087 or

University of Washington

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