The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Who needs a presidential campaign? Outside spending in 2014 could rival 2012’s.

So far in the 2014 election cycle, 114 super PACs have spent money on federal races, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Yes, 114. And that's before the primary season is over.

Those 114 super PACs have spent $77.8 million so far -- a number that will jump up after the groups submit their latest Federal Election Commission filings next week. The top five super PAC spenders this year have spent $38.3 million of that total.  In total, 23 super PACs have spent more than $1 million.

If you add in 501(c)4 nonprofits, unions, trade associations, corporations and other entities that are considered outside spenders, the total jumps to 270 groups that have reported spending so far in the midterms. That's more than one group for every two incumbents facing reelection -- and five or six groups for every competitive race.

It's a lot of money, and it's a lot of groups trying to poke politics into the direction of their choosing. And those millions are already record-breaking.

During the 2010 midterm election, 83 super PACs spent $62.6 million. We haven't even reached the fall, when campaign spending tends to and will skyrocket, and super PACs -- 31 more than were playing four years ago -- have already topped that spending total.

Even crazier, however, is that this year's outside spending could come close to what was spent in 2012. When there was a presidential election.

Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, notes that although spending usually slows down during the midterms, "it's plausible we match what was spent in 2012 this year."

It's unlikely that spending this year would top the money spent in 2012, but a midterm election that even thought of a presidential year-like budget is pretty remarkable.

In 2012, super PACs spent about $227 million on Senate and House races — a number that super PACs this year will surely approach if groups treat autumn like the spending-palooza they have in past two cycles.

There are a few reasons why outside spending is so high this year. First, we have the Republican primaries. "As the post-Citizens United system is maturing," Krumholz says, "players who usually sit out the primaries stepped in."

The Chamber of Commerce was never one for intra-party battles, but the 501(c)4 has been one of the biggest spenders this primary season, throwing $14 million behind establishment candidates in an effort to weed out tea party challengers. Even though the group mostly waited out the primaries in 2010, it managed to spend $33.8 million. Who knows how much they will have spent by November 2014.

Tea party-affiliated outside spenders also spent heavily during the primaries. Fifty-three percent of total outside spending this year has been against Republican candidates -- and a healthy portion of that spending came from tea party groups, not Democrats.

Another reason spending is increasing? Democrats and liberal donors are far less squeamish about outside spending than they were in 2010.

In 2010, the Patriot Majority PAC, which supports Democratic senators, spent $2.1 million, making it the 12th-biggest super PAC. It has spent $4.8 million so far this cycle, making it the fourth biggest super PAC spender. 

In 2010, Commonsense Ten PAC spent $3.3 million. This year, now going by the name Senate Majority PAC, the PAC has spent $17.7 million. It is the biggest super PAC spender this cycle.

The amount spent by the top three liberal super PACs in 2010 was barely even half the amount spent by American Crossroads -- the top GOP super PAC that year, founded by Karl Rove.

Single-candidate super PACs are also in vogue, as those running for office become less worried about accusations of coordination -- something the Supreme Court decision in McCutcheon v. FEC has made even less of a problem. There are 46 single-candidate PACs this election cycle. They have spent $17 million.

And, a reminder, the "real" campaign spending picks up in the fall. Krumholz's prediction about a midterm with presidential election-sized receipts doesn't seem too far-fetched.

Another development to keep in mind this year? Spending is increasingly emanating from groups that don't have to report their donors or spending, like Americans for Prosperity, which is registered as a social-welfare group. There's a huge amount of money being spent already this year that isn't making it into the $131 million grand total that appears on the Center for Responsive Politics' outside spending tally. This is the money that could make 2014 a 2012-sized year. This money is also the reason we may never quite grasp exactly how much money was spent.

In 2012, 82 percent of outside spending came from super PACs, according to Krumholz. In 2014, 63 percent of spending has come from super PACs.

There are 114 super PACs who have spent money this cycle, and they are only a piece of a much larger pie.