Tens of millions in Senate race spending fails to generate voting boom

The U.S. Senate campaigns and outside groups that buried Alaska under an avalanche of advertising, annoying phone calls and assorted other forms of political persuasion spent roughly $225 for everyone who cast a ballot.

While final finance and voting tallies have yet to be compiled, Dan Sullivan holds a commanding lead over Sen. Mark Begich in the most expensive race in Alaska history.

The Begich-Sullivan fight was one of nine Senate races in which spending by outside groups not run by candidates exceeded the money spent by the candidates, the Center for Responsive Politics said. The U.S. Supreme Court decision in Citizens United and other cases, lifting restrictions on campaign financing, have changed the political landscape.

Total spending in the Alaska race has reached $57 million, with $40 million of that spent by outside groups unaffiliated with either the Sullivan or Begich campaigns. Add in the primary candidates and the total spending for the race climbs to $59 million, even before the final election spending numbers are included.

In terms of getting voters to the polls, the boom in spending did not lead to a boom in turnout. About 259,000 voters went to the polls in 2010 when Sen. Lisa Murkowski won re-election, This year the final turnout appears to be not a great deal different, despite the expenditure of nearly 10 times more money.

Alaska has about 500,000 registered voters and the final turnout picture won't be clear for some days to come. In 2012, a presidential year, about 300,000 voters cast ballots.

The outside groups acted in ways that made them indistinguishable from campaign committees, though they are controlled by people who are not on the ballot and had disclaimers on their ads saying as much.


They relied on wealthy networks of donors from throughout the country, with only a tiny percentage of the funds originating in Alaska. In overall spending, the pro-Begich forces had an advantage of about $5 million.

The biggest spenders in Alaska were also among the biggest nationally -- the Senate Majority PAC, most closely associated with Sen. Harry Reid; the two groups associated with GOP strategist Karl Rove, American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS; and the Senate campaign committees backing Republicans and Democrats.

In addition, there was an unknown amount of money spent on so-called "issue ads" in the spring and summer with no direct endorsement of candidates.

The intense efforts to promote or tear down the candidates and influence a quarter-million voters made this the sixth or seventh most expensive Senate race in the country.

On a cost-per-vote basis, Alaska tops the list. The states with higher total spending have populations in the millions, not 735,000.

The most costly campaign took place in North Carolina, home of nearly 10 million residents, where $113 million changed hands in the fight between Sen. Kay Hagen and Thom Tillis. A recent analysis put the cost of that election per registered voter at $17.

Total spending in Alaska was higher than in any Senate contests except those in Colorado, Iowa, Kentucky, Georgia and Arkansas.

In Alaska, outside groups not controlled by the candidates funded more than two-thirds of the election tab for the Senate.

For the funds not controlled by the candidates, $20.7 million was spent on behalf of Begich, while $19.8 million went to help Sullivan, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

For the segment of funds controlled by the candidates, Begich raised $10.7 million, while Sullivan raised $7.1 million.

Dermot Cole

Former ADN columnist Dermot Cole is a longtime reporter, editor and author.