At the end of 2019, we predicted that 2020 was going to be “the most expensive election year” we’d ever seen—little did we know then that the price of the 2020 cycle would approach the mind-blowing figure of $14 billion, roughly double the cost of the 2016 election. In the presidential race between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden as well as high-profile races for Congress, fundraising records were obliterated as both parties sought to control.
But elections weren’t the only place political money was spent. As the novel coronavirus pandemic spread across the nation, virtually every industry shelled out cash to lobby for relief. As the crisis began to impact the stock market, a number of prominent political figures found themselves in hot water for suspiciously-timed trades.
Join us for a look back at the biggest year for political spending… so far.
$14 billion … and counting
The year began with the competitive Democratic primary already in full swing. By late February, the race had already become the most expensive Democratic primary in history, thanks not only to the sheer number of competitors but to the number of super PACs that became involved as well. Self-funding billionaire Michael Bloomberg also played his part, quickly spending over $1 billion dollars of his own personal funds before dropping out after a disappointing Super Tuesday performance.
But emerging from the crowded field was former Vice President Joe Biden, who would ultimately overcome Trump’s fundraising and reach the $1 billion mark himself before the year was out—becoming the first candidate in history to pull in 10 figures from donors. Major spikes for Biden’s fundraising came when he named Kamala Harris as his running mate and following the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg.
President Trump began the year by surviving an impeachment battle. Trump loomed large over the entire 2020 cycle—not just in the race for the White House, but also in congressional races. In many cases, Republican primaries were won by the Trump-aligned candidate. By filing to run for reelection the night he was inaugurated, he started the year with a massive fundraising advantage. And he leveraged his advantage to help allies in Congress by forming joint fundraising committees with a number of vulnerable lawmakers and the Republican party itself, a move that proved extremely lucrative.
Even after the November election was called for Biden, Trump continued to solicit donations to fund a wave of lawsuits contesting the results in battleground states. Much of the money he has raised has been routed to his new leadership PAC, which is not an official campaign committee but could begin to lay the groundwork for a potential 2024 bid.
Further down the ballot, candidates for House and Senate also pulled in record figures. Races for Senate became nationalized in a way never seen before, with candidates pulling in millions from out-of-state donors and shattering fundraising records.
In fact, nine of the 10 most expensive Senate races of all time happened in 2020. So did four of the 10 most expensive House races. Much of this money flowed to candidates challenging high-profile officeholders, including Sens. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.). Fueled by small donors, these candidates pulled in millions for what mostly proved to be unsuccessful bids. Despite these expensive and high-profile losses, however, 88 percent of congressional races were won by the candidate who spent the most.
More so than ever before, candidates, parties, and outside groups spent money on digital advertising as they sought to reach new donors and voters. The digital space also made political donations easier (especially for small donors) as much of the country went virtual. Women also continued to increase their political clout, both as candidates and as donors. Meanwhile, corporations, while being barred from directly contributing to candidates, used corporate PACs to boost the campaigns of candidates aligned with their financial goals.
As the candidates pulled in record figures, super PACs, “dark money” nonprofits and other outside groups pulled out all the stops in hopes of ensuring victory. Throughout the cycle, party-tied groups and other partisan actors such as The Lincoln Project spent hundreds of millions of dollars on independent expenditures. For the first time, spending by outside groups exceeded $3 billion.
As spending by outside actors increased, concerns about transparency remained high. One method of spending that gained popularity in 2020 was the “pop-up” super PAC, which incorporates just before an election, allowing the group to delay donor disclosure until after votes have been cast. We also saw an increase in so-called “grey money” — contributions from dark money groups to super PACs.
Those transparency concerns came as the nation’s campaign finance watchdog was missing for much of the year. On Dec. 9, the Senate confirmed three nominees to the Federal Election Commission, finally giving the agency enough commissioners to enforce campaign finance laws. But the agency’s future remains uncertain.
Ten years after Citizens United, not only does the cost of election rise significantly with each election cycle, but transparency has decreased dramatically while the power of wealthy mega-donors has increased.
Coronavirus upends Washington
In the early days of the COVID-19 outbreak, OpenSecrets reported that Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) dumped up to $1.7 million in stocks just before news of the virus rocked markets. That news prompted a federal investigation into alleged insider trading, and increased scrutiny of lawmakers’ stock trades throughout 2020.
While Americans suffered throughout the pandemic, Congress likely got richer. The majority of lawmakers in the 116th Congress are already millionaires. Many lawmakers were already heavily invested in pharmaceutical stocks that gained value this year, and Congress passed tax breaks that boosted their own real estate holdings amid the pandemic.
Well-connected lobbying firms also benefitted as the virus rocked the nation. Companies in every major industry hired lobbyists to influence the $2.3 billion stimulus bill. Others lobbied the Trump administration over potential government contracts and its designation of essential businesses. All of that activity caused a spike in lobbying spending. Lobbyists who previously worked for Trump and top congressional leaders lobbied their former bosses on behalf of deep-pocketed companies as stimulus negotiations sidelined rank-and-file lawmakers. Every major K Street firm boosted its revenue in the second quarter of 2020, including those run by major Trump fundraisers. Top Trump allies who lobby the president on behalf of powerful clients were rewarded with government positions that allow them to keep their lobbying gigs.
Lobbying spending stagnated in the second half of the year as Congress failed to come to an agreement on another stimulus package. Lobbying efforts were well-funded but not always effective. Powerful business groups unsuccessfully pushed for a wide-ranging liability shield against virus-related lawsuits. The pharmaceutical industry bankrolled conservative groups that unsuccessfully pushed Trump against issuing executive orders to lower drug prices.
Looking forward to 2021 (and 2022)
Looking toward 2021, the OpenSecrets team will continue to track the revolving door between K Street and the federal government as the Trump administration gives way to the Biden administration. Some of Biden’s nominees are already under scrutiny over their ties to powerful defense companies.
Next year will kick off with a bang, as the Jan. 5 Georgia runoffs decide control of the Senate. Those races have already seen hundreds of millions in spending, with Republican groups outspending their Democratic counterparts. The contests could top the most expensive Senate races of all time when all is said and done, and they will push total spending in the 2020 election to even greater heights.
Biden’s nominations have already set up at least three special elections for 2021, with Reps. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio), Deb Haaland (D-N.M.) and Cedric Richmond (D-La.) set to depart the House for positions within his administration. Plus, congressional candidates are already launching their 2022 bids, setting up an expensive midterm battle for Congress.
This article originally appeared on OpenSecrets.org, The Center for Responsive Politics on December 22, 2020 and is republished with permission.