Analyses by The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal found that independent spending helped Republicans mainly by eroding (but not erasing) the financial advantage enjoyed by incumbents -- whose re-election rate, even in this year of supposedly sweeping change, was still about 85 percent. The role played by "shadowy groups with harmless-sounding names," as President Obama describes organizations such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Karl Rove's American Crossroads, should not be exaggerated, however. Money from independent groups, including those favoring Democrats as well as Republicans, came to about $293 million, less than one-tenth of the total.
The amount of independent spending was more than in any previous midterm year and nearly as much as in the last presidential election. But in a different political environment -- one in which Democrats were less vulnerable and Republicans had less of a shot at seizing control of Congress -- the impact of this spending might not even have been noticed. In a different political environment, of course, the money probably would not have been raised to begin with.
That consideration also makes it hard to evaluate the impact of Citizens United v. FEC, the January decision in which the Supreme Court dismayed Obama and other Democrats by overturning restrictions on the political speech of unions and corporations. Some of this year's ads -- for example, messages sponsored by unions or nonprofit interest groups that amounted to "express advocacy" or its "functional equivalent" -- would have been illegal prior to Citizens United. But much of the money that paid for those messages might otherwise have gone to groups that were already allowed to run campaign ads.
Money clearly matters in politics, because speech cannot travel very far without it. But as disastrously unsuccessful big spenders such as McMahon and Whitman vividly demonstrate, the ability to reach a wide audience does not guarantee that you will persuade anyone.