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Interest groups are out-performing the parties in congressional primaries

Party organizations have historically been successful in nominating their preferred candidates. However, thanks to the creation of super PACs, interest groups have become integral in determining candidates’ success in congressional primaries.

An example from the 2012 cycle in Florida’s 19th congressional district is illustrative. Representative Connie Mack IV (R-FL) decided to run for the U.S. Senate rather than running for reelection in the newly-drawn, solidly Republican district in southwestern Florida. Trey Radel, a former local CBS-affiliate news anchor with no previous political experience, entered the open seat race along with five other Republican candidates. Among the other candidates were state representatives Paige Kreegel and Gary Aubuchon, and former Paul Ryan (R-WI) aide Chauncey Goss. Goss received the financial support of current and former members of Congress, including Ryan. And though they did not have support from party leaders, Kreegel and Aubuchon received contributions from 12 and 27 different interest groups, respectively. Yet Radel ended up winning the primary despite being supported by just six groups and no members of the party organization.

It is clear that although Radel did not receive the breadth of support from the party and party-aligned groups that three of his competitors received, his support had more depth. Despite being outraised by each of Goss, Kreegel, and Aubuchon in traditional direct PAC contributions (which are limited to $5,000 per donor, per year), super PACs favoring Radel spent over $100,000 more in independent expenditures supporting him than the total amount spent on independent expenditures in support of the other three candidates combined. This example shows that since the advent of super PACs, candidates with deep, rather than broad, elite support can challenge the consensus of party leaders and core party interest groups and activists.

Open seat, open wallet: Changes in campaign finance and interest group spending

The Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United v. FEC (2010) allowed for political action committees to overtly advocate for or against a candidate using independent expenditures without contributing to the candidate directly. Three months after the Court’s ruling, the D.C. Circuit Court, citing the new precedent set by the Supreme Court, ruled in SpeechNow.org v. FEC that PACs that strictly utilize independent expenditures without contributing to or coordinating with candidates at all – subsequently known as super PACs – may raise and spend unlimited sums of money to advocate for or against candidates.

In a recent article published in Party Politics, I compile campaign finance data from the Center for Responsive Politics for every candidate who ran in an open seat House primary from 2006 to 2016. I code PAC contributors as “party PACs” if they are PACs belonging to a current or former member of Congress, a national party organization (such as the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee), or a state or local party organization (e.g., the Republican Party of Cuyahoga County). This essentially encompasses what we might consider to be the “formal” party organization at the local, state, and national levels. I code the rest of the PAC contributors as “interest group PACs,” distinguishing them from the formal party organization. This includes groups like labor unions, EMILY’s List, and corporate PACs.

I find that, since the creation and maturation of super PACs, (with 2012 being the first full primary cycle in which super PACs existed), interest group spending in open seat House primaries has outpaced party spending. This spending disparity is particularly acute among Republicans.

Ratio of PAC contributions plus independent expenditures to the number of unique PACs, 2006-2016

The parties fall behind

Interest groups’ increased spending in open seat congressional primaries does not necessarily portend doom for parties seeking to nominate their preferred candidates, as fundraising does not guarantee success. In my analysis, I code a candidate as being the party’s preferred candidate if she receives more unique contributions (or supportive independent expenditures) from party PACs than any other candidate in the race. The figure below shows that, though party-backed candidates from both parties are still successful more often than not, such candidates have been less successful post-2012 (particularly among Republicans).

Winning percentage of party-preferred candidates in open seat House primaries, 2006-2016

Shouldn’t the parties feel good that their preferred candidates are successful more often than not? I would say yes, but my data suggests a healthy dose of caution with this optimism. Parties and interest groups often coordinate and support the same candidate in a primary. Indeed, I find that Democratic party and interest group PACs supported the same candidate in open seat House primaries over 60 percent of the time since 2006 while Republican party and interest group PACs coordinated more than 50 percent of the time. However, the story becomes more complicated when the party organization and interest groups disagree on which candidate to support.

Prior to 2012, the first full primary cycle in which super PACs existed, the interest groups’ preferred candidate defeated the party organization’s preferred candidate 29 percent of the time in the races in which the two groups preferred different candidates. From 2012 to 2016, interest group-preferred candidates won 60 percent of the time when interest group and party preferences clashed. Put simply, interest group-backed candidates are outperforming party-backed candidates.

Interest group-preferred candidates versus party-preferred candidates in open seat House primaries

Even if we take a broader view of defining a party and count interest groups themselves as members of an extended party network, Citizens United has disrupted the cohesiveness and effectiveness of broad networks. Prior to 2012 a small number of interest group PACs backing a candidate outspent a larger number of groups backing a different candidate 17 times, with the smaller number of groups winning six and losing 11. From 2012 onward, when it became much easier for a smaller number of groups to outspend a broader coalition, this occurred 34 times, with the smaller number of groups winning 18 contests and losing 16. In other words, a candidate supported by a diverse array of interest groups within the party risks losing to a candidate supported by one or two interest group-aligned super PACs with few limits on their resources.

Citizens United financially equipped interest groups with the power to reject the formal party organization and the broader party network, and those groups have been more effective when they have challenged party preferences. Though prospective U.S. House candidates will find that the “traditional” party-support path to the nomination remains, there is also increasingly an incentive for candidates to run if they are friendly with a specific group or two with deep pockets. Party leaders risk seeing their preferred candidates lose or under-perform if they don’t deploy more resources in congressional primaries.

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Topics: Other Parties, Campaigns, & Elections
Cory Manento
Cory is a fourth-year Ph.D. candidate at Brown University specializing in American politics. His current research addresses areas including political ...

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