money in politics

The Cost of Winning a Senate Race

Photo credit: Flickr user, hsivonen,

To illustrate the large difference in the amount of money needed to win a US Senate seat (quite a lot) and the amount needed to win a state Senate seat (much, much less), a recent Mother Jones article used some calculations that I thought were somewhat lacking – so I decided to make improvements.

To skip straight to the findings, click here.

I don’t disagree with the main thrust of the Mother Jones article, which is that super-PACs are setting their sights on state capitals, not just federal races, and certainly not just the 2012 presidential race. This is alarming because a little money goes a long way in state capitals.

I would add that few of us know who our state-level representatives are. If we don’t even know who represents us in our state capitals, then we are clearly not doing a good job at holding them accountable. If politicians are able to operate in secret and a little money goes a long way with them, then the conditions are such that corporate interests and super-PACs are able to dominate at the expense of everyday people.

Here’s what I thought needed improvement:

How much further does $10,000 or $100,000 go at the state level? According to a Pew Center on the States analysis, in the mid-2000s the average cost of a winning state Senate campaign was anywhere from $5,713 (North Dakota) to $938,522 (California). In Arizona it was $36,696; in Wisconsin, $140,287; in North Carolina, $234,031. By contrast, the average cost of a US Senate seat in 2010 was $9.2 million.

I am dissatisfied with the above because what I want (and think others would too) is to be able to compare a representative of a particular state with a different representative of that same state. The essential difference between the two representatives would be at what level of government they serve. So for example, the cost of winning a state Senate campaign in North Dakota compared to the cost of winning a US Senate seat to represent North Dakota.

Available data

Center for Responsive Politics collects and makes a lot of very useful federal data related to money in politics available. The amount of money raised to win Congressional races is presented by state for several election cycles. Here is Alabama and the 2010 election cycle. As you can see, Senator Richard C. Shelby raised $8.5 million during the 2010 election cycle.

National Institute On Money In State Politics has state-level campaign finance data (and more!) for all 50 states. I find it incredible that they are able to track down this data for all 50 states, standardize it, and make it available. Here is a list of Alabama’s state Senate candidates for 2010 with the winners sorted first. As you can see, State Senator Gerald Allen raised $434,000 during the 2010 election cycle.

The Cost of Winning a Senate Race

The idea behind the creation of this table is to be able to compare the cost of winning a US Senate seat in 2010 versus the cost of winning one in each state capital.

State Avg amt raised by US Senate winners Avg amt raised by State Senate winners 1 US Senate seat = (X) state Senate seats
AL $8,557,473 $414,730 21
AK $4,689,683 $64,487 73
AZ $21,878,921 $49,390 443
AR $3,057,617 $100,929 30
CA $29,331,343 $850,868 34
CO $11,536,750 $77,113 150
CT $8,733,486 $83,519 105
DE $3,852,049 $40,144 96
FL $21,741,330 $435,088 50
GA $9,671,128 $114,854 84
HI $5,216,102 $76,061 69
ID $5,098,869 $29,448 173
IL $14,305,287 $556,549 26
IN $4,396,274 $111,066 40
IA $7,701,183 $107,073 72
KS $4,154,081 $91,148 46
KY $7,809,324 $150,215 52
LA $12,560,392 n/a n/a
ME n/a $27,174 n/a
MD $5,508,300 $121,947 45
MA $18,272,033 $164,247 111
MI n/a $266,472 n/a
MN n/a $45,510 n/a
MS n/a n/a n/a
MO $11,932,403 $481,506 25
MT n/a $23,791 n/a
NE n/a $47,126 n/a
NV $24,815,104 $213,183 116
NH $4,414,291 $57,967 76
NJ n/a n/a n/a
NM n/a n/a n/a
NY $16,469,147 $548,470 30
NC $10,868,382 $246,333 44
ND $3,801,481 $7,143 532
OH $16,540,629 $455,175 36
OK $2,644,376 $179,411 15
OR $6,930,089 $302,314 23
PA $17,155,694 $325,091 53
RI n/a $37,023 n/a
SC $7,199,774 n/a n/a
SD $12,518,942 $21,820 574
TN n/a $147,970 n/a
TX n/a $653,056 n/a
UT $1,710,429 $91,466 19
VT $4,869,504 $12,774 381
VA n/a n/a n/a
WA $17,124,667 $187,933 91
WV $4,395,107 $109,232 40
WI $15,235,898 $140,854 108
WY n/a $8,950 n/a
AVERAGE $10,451,285 $188,105 56
MEDIAN $8,557,473 $110,149 78

We can now paraphrase or update the original from Mother Jones to:

How much further does $10,000 or $100,000 go at the state level? On average, over 50 times further if we look at data from Center for Responsive Politics and National Institute On Money In State Politics. In 2010 the average campaign for state Senate raised anywhere from $7,143 (North Dakota) to $850,868 (California). By contrast, the average of US Senate campaign in 2010 raised anywhere from $1,710,429 (Utah) to $29,331,343 (California). On average, a single campaign for US Senate could fund 56 state senate campaigns.

What do you think? Well done? Poorly done? Are there nuances that I am missing? Share your thoughts and get on my good side!

One reply on “The Cost of Winning a Senate Race”

This is exactly the kind of research I’ve been looking for, to give some context to the campaign finance analysis I see on places like Marcellus Money. Do you have see the raw data on winning campaigns on a district level, or other local offices?

It would also be interesting to compare those numbers with other demographics in a particular district, income, age, race etc. Our district is relatively modest to low-income, but our state House race is super pricey.

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