Special interest groups poured money into 16 hot political races across the country in 2018, including the one in which Democratic Rep. Jason Crow ousted five-term Republican Mike Coffman.
The U.S. Supreme Court issued its ruling that allowed unlimited spending by groups to elect or defeat candidates in 2010. A record level of spending fueled the 2018 election cycle.
"Since that 2010 Citizens United decision, there have been 48 congressional races in which non-candidate, non-party groups like super PACs and dark money groups have outspent the candidates — and one-third of that total occurred in 2018," said Michael Beckel, a researcher with the nonpartisan Issue One election watchdog group.
In the 16 races, Beckel's group found so-called "dark money" groups and super PACs outspent the candidates' campaigns. In Colorado's 6th Congressional District, here's how it played out.
First, the numbers
Between them, Crow and Coffman tallied about $9.3 million for their own campaigns, but $11.7 million flowed in from super PACs and dark money groups.
Both types of groups are able to collect unlimited sums of money from donors. While super PACs are required to disclose their donors, dark money groups do not have to. Dark money was a factor in races outside Colorado, but still accounted for roughly 10 percent of the outside money in the Crow-Coffman battle.
What kinds of groups were giving?
The biggest spenders were the Republican-aligned Congressional Leadership Fund super PAC, which reported spending about $2.4 million in favor of Coffman, and a gun violence prevention group called Giffords PAC, which spent about $1.5 million.
So what's the concern?
Candidates can lose control of their own messages during a campaign, a trend that Issue One saw across the country. Coffman said outside money hurt his ability to get the messages he wanted to voters — even when it came from groups that wanted to see him re-elected.
"For outside groups sending money, allegedly to help you, you don't control that message because you can't coordinate with them," Coffman said. "Conversely, your opponent does not control what the outside do spending money against you. I think there's a lack of transparency in that process."
And outside money that aims to help a candidate can backfire. Coffman mentioned one particular ad attacking Crow's legal background and said it created an opening for attacks against him, hurting his campaign.
Does money decide the race?
Money is an influencer, but it isn't everything in a political race. Coffman said his biggest problem was President Trump, another influencer of political messages in Colorado.
"Even though he didn't campaign in Colorado, it was like he was in everybody's living room every day, making news on these rallies he was holding," Coffman said. "So it was impossible because of that, I would say — more than anything else — to get my message out to the voters."