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At $97 per vote, top spenders lost

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Is a vote worth $97? Sharron Angle seemed to think so. When all of the campaign spending by the Nevada politician and her supporters was tallied, that's how much it came to for each vote she received in her failed bid to take down Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid last week.

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Angle's campaign, which attracted support from across the country, was the most expensive congressional contest nationwide on a per-vote basis, according to a Washington Post analyis of campaign finance filings and election results.

By comparison, Reid and interest groups backing him spent $69 for each vote he received.

The figures offer one more window into what was the most expensive midterm election in U.S. history - estimated to come to $4 billion once all the money is counted, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks campaign finance statistics.

But some voters got much more attention than others, and the money did not always buy electoral success. Among the 17 congressional campaigns that cost more than $60 for each vote received, 10 of the candidates were Democrats, and only three of them won.

Even beyond that group, most Democratic incumbents who lost had enjoyed a big head start in fundraising and had spent much more than their challengers. An influx of money from outside interest groups helped Republicans overcome some of the difference, but in most races won by the GOP, the candidates had less money behind them.

"Money doesn't guarantee victory," said Mark Mellman, a pollster who worked for Reid and other Democrats this year. "You can lose with it, but it's hard to win without it."

Just behind Angle was Republican Linda McMahon, the former chief executive of World Wrestling Entertainment who lost to state Attorney General Dick Blumenthal (D) for the seat vacated by retiring Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D) in Connecticut. She spent about $97 per vote - 49 cents less than Angle. Almost all of it (about $47 million) came from McMahon's own pocket.

In California, former eBay chief executive Meg Whitman spent $140 million of her own money on her campaign for governor. But because she was running in the country's most-populous state, her per-vote spending fell far behind that of Angle and McMahon.

In upstate New York, Rep. Scott Murphy (D) and his supporters spent $66 for each of the 99,000 votes he received, or about $6.5 million. But he was defeated by retired Army Col. Chris Gibson, who spent $4 million, or $33 per vote.

"We knew that we'd compete on the air, but our goal was to win on the ground," said Dan Odescalchi, a spokesman for Gibson, who will be sworn in with at least 62 other Republican freshmen in January.

The campaign's key to success was its 2,000 volunteers throughout the sprawling, largely rural district in upstate New York, Odescalchi said. Gibson won by almost 10 percentage points.

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