Total 2012 election spending: $7 billion


A new estimate from the Federal Election Commission puts total spending for the 2012 election at more than $7 billion — $1 billion more than previously thought. 

New FEC Chair Ellen Weintraub unveiled the latest estimate of the 2012 campaign's record-shattering cost at the agency's first open meeting of 2013, one that saw the departure of Cynthia Bauerly, one of the three Democratic commissioners. Though campaign spending was expected to break records after the Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision that opened the door for unlimited contributions, the latest FEC estimate exceeds earlier expectations. 

The FEC processed more than 11 million documents to calculate the spending for the election and the counting isn't yet complete: New filings covering the final quarter of 2012 are due at midnight.

But Weintraub projects that the final tab will include: $3.2 billion in spending by candidate committees, $2 billion from party committees and another $2 billion or more from outside groups. The new FEC chair, a Democrat, drew attention to the "unusual situation we find ourselves in," noting that some races drew more spending from outside groups than from the candidates themselves. She also pointed out that despite the Citizens United ruling, traditional PACs still outspent super PACs. 

Weintraub also pointed to the enforcement and rulemaking items leftover from a busy election year. "We've got a lot to do," she said, and the sentiment was echoed by Vice Chairman Donald McGahn, a Republican who chaired the FEC in 2008. 

The FEC currently faces 360 enforcement matters, including some that have been on the docket for some time. "Nothing ought to take one two-year cycle to resolve," said Weintraub. "It's not fair to the public, it's not fair to the respondents, and it's not fair to the people interested in what we do." In a follow-up interview with Sunlight, Weintraub couldn't go into specifics, but she reiterated her desire to enforce the rules and resolve pending complaints, and said that other commissioners were onboard. 

The commission must also deal with the subject of text message donations, which commissioners say they would like to address in a comprehensive way, rather than dealing individually with the six advisory opinions that have been issued on the subject. 

Notably absent from the commission's remarks during the meeting was its recent increase of campaign contribution limits, which raised the donation ceiling from $2,500 to $2,600 for individuals. While the change was not mentioned in the meeting, Weintraub said afterward that the increase is "another reason we know the numbers are not going to go down," referring again to 2012's record spending. 

Smiles shone across the panel as the commission unanimously verified the minutes of the last public meeting, confirmed the Green Party of Virginia as an official state committee of the political party, and adopted a motion to consider new rules on itemizing ultimate payees of committee disbursements. "We are being extremely efficient," said Weintraub. 

The commissioners concluded the lighthearted meeting with parting words for Bauerly. She will join Minnestota's Department of Employment and Economic Development as Deputy Commissioner of Workforce Development. 

Bauerly's resignation is not likely to have much of an effect on the commission's operations. FEC rules require four votes to take any action, and according to Paul S. Ryan, senior counsel at the Campaign Legal Center, "On the most pressing issues, the commission has been deadlocking three to three." Bauerly's vacant seat will give the Republican commissioners a majority, but not the necessary fourth vote.

More than four years after taking office, President Barack Obama has yet to put his stamp on the FEC: His lone appointee, John Sullivan, withdrew in 2010 after the Senate refused to act on his nomination. Since then, the president has made no other nominations. By April, all five remaining commissioners will be serving on expired terms. 

Ryan said that that the CLC hopes Bauerly's resignation will prompt Obama to appoint new commissioners, though he was not optimistic. "We're not particularly hopeful, since he has yet to make any successful appointments to the commission." 

Correction: This post previously misstated that McGahn chaired the FEC last year. It has been corrected above.