Capitol Report: Money may have been the deciding factor in these 5 key midterm races

Big spending helped Democrats take over control of the House of Representatives in Tuesday’s midterm elections.

Three House contests stand out in particular for featuring a Democratic challenger who significantly outspent — and then went on to defeat — a GOP incumbent.

They are Virginia Democrat Abigail Spanberger’s projected win over GOP Rep. Dave Brat, Illinois Democrat Lauren Underwood’s victory over Republican incumbent Randy Hultgren and Oklahoma Democrat Kendra Horn’s triumph over Steve Russell. The Oklahoma race has been dubbed “an Oklahoma City stunner,” as that district had been rated as “likely Republican” by RealClearPolitics, .

In addition, the Florida Senate race — where GOP Gov. Rick Scott was projected to top Democratic incumbent Sen. Bill Nelson by a razor-thin margin — ranks as a contest where the challenger’s money advantage may have been a deciding factor, as does Republican Mike Braun’s win in Indiana over Democratic incumbent Sen. Joe Donnelly. Overall, the race to represent Florida in the U.S. Senate triggered more spending than any other congressional election this year, and it wasn’t completely settled as of Wednesday morning, as an automatic recount looked likely.

Key numbers for those three House races and two Senate battles are shown in the chart below. It illustrates the extent to which the challenger outspent the incumbent en route to victory.

5 midterm races where a challenger spent more — and won

Source: Center for Responsive Politics, TV networks’ projections, MarketWatch

Overall, 52 challengers in this year’s 470 congressional races enjoyed a spending advantage over the incumbent, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics, a campaign-finance watchdog. They were mostly Democratic challengers, with just four Republicans in that group of 52.

The magnitude of spending by Democratic challengers stood out this year, especially for House races, said Sarah Bryner, the center’s research director, ahead of Election Day. It was fueled by Democratic donors who were expressing their frustration with President Donald Trump by funding their party’s viable candidates, she told MarketWatch.

University of Florida political science professor Suzanne Robbins had noted that extensive political science research indicates that “the more a challenger spends, the more likely he or she is to win.”

To be sure, some 2018 challengers enjoyed spending advantages but lost, including Democrat Beto O’Rourke in the high-profile Senate race in Texas, Republican Bob Hugin in New Jersey’s Senate contest and Pennsylvania Democrat Scott Wallace in a House battle.

In the five races shown in the chart, Scott’s spending advantage came mostly from his own money, with the former health-care executive donating $51 million, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics. Similarly, Braun — owner of auto parts and trucking companies — shelled out $9.6 million of his own money.

Spanberger got 67% of her funds from large individual contributions and 19% from small individual contributions, with Wall Street

XLF, +0.67%

 , the legal industry and the education sector among her top supporters. Underwood’s top donors included groups focused on women’s issues, according to the center’s data, while Horn’s included the legal and education industries.

MarketWatch’s Katie Marriner contributed to this report.

This report was first published on Nov. 7, 2018.

Victor Reklaitis is MarketWatch’s Money Politics reporter and is based in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter @VicRek.

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