SPRINGFIELD (AP) — So much for the fear and loathing over anonymous fat cats buying elections, at least this year. The Democrats' near sweep of last week's congressional races in Illinois might give big-spending super PACs pause.
Sixty percent of the nearly $45 million poured into the Illinois races by independent political committees went to losing campaigns as Democrats knocked out four Republican incumbents, according to an Associated Press analysis of federal data. In all, the committees — which have few or no cash-flow restrictions — spent more money on Illinois House races this fall than in any state but California.
Experts say it shows that quality candidates who have sound messages — and who are willing to knock on doors and shake hands with voters — still matter. Money is important, but not the holy grail.
"People with money beat people without money, but the person with the most money doesn't always win," said Kent Redfield, a campaign finance expert at the University of Illinois at Springfield. "Getting outspent 2-to-1 isn't fatal if your 1 is big enough."
In four of the state's six hotly contested House races, the losing candidate received more money from so-called "independent expenditure" committees than the winner, according to the analysis of Federal Election Commission data.
The most lopsided example was the race between GOP Rep. Joe Walsh and Tammy Duckworth, a Democrat and Iraq war veteran who failed in a past attempt to reach Congress. Walsh, a freshman Tea Party favorite, benefited from $5.9 million spent by outside committees on campaign ads and other efforts either in support of his bid or against Duckworth.
The total for Duckworth, who won, was just $701,000, though Duckworth raised considerably more than Walsh on her own.
Independent expenditure money comprises two basic groups. There are the well-publicized "super" Political Action Committees which recently won the right in court rulings to raise and spend money without limits. Party PACs also can be considered part of the category; they have limits on raising money, but not on spending it.
The catch is they cannot "coordinate" with a candidate. In other words, they can make a TV commercial backing one hopeful or send mail bashing an opponent, but it cannot be part of a strategy planned with a candidate.
In other races, Democrat Brad Schneider unseated Republican Rep. Robert Dold with less than half the outside money spent on behalf of the incumbent. Seven-term GOP Rep. Judy Biggert was unseated by former Rep. Bill Foster despite having 16 percent more outside money. And former state Adjutant General William Enyart beat Republican Jason Plummer with nearly $900,000 less from the outside.
Thanking her supporters on Election Night, Duckworth said, "You stood with me when others tried to buy this election."
The astronomical amounts of outside money — $44.9 million in Illinois, just $4 million less than California and almost as much as the next two states, New York and Florida, combined — isn't the only cash in the campaigns. Duckworth raised $4.9 million on her own, swamping Walsh's own fundraising total of $1.9 million, according to Redfield.
Nonetheless, Walsh and the committees that backed him ultimately outspent the Duckworth side $7.8 million to $5 million.
"What we're seeing is small contributions are more powerful than millionaires being able to fund super PACs," said Brian Imus of Illinois PIRG, an advocacy group.
Whether the super PACs agree will play out over the next few election cycles, Redfield said. But this year's results might make them reconsider how they spend their money, he added.
Take the Chicago-based New Prosperity Foundation, run by Ron Gidwitz, a Chicago businessman, former state school board chairman and one-time GOP gubernatorial candidate. Its $1.4 million investment this fall was 28th most among 225 organizations nationwide participating in House races.
The group, which takes credit for helping elect Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., and putting a GOP majority in the U.S. House in 2010, had less spectacular results this year. It spent all but $140,000 of the total opposing four Democrats: Duckworth, Foster; Cheri Bustos, who unseated freshman GOP Rep. Bobby Schilling; and David Gill, who barely lost an open central Illinois seat to Republican Rodney Davis.
A spokeswoman for the group did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
However, the 2012 Illinois campaign might not be the best place to examine super PAC spending, said Bob Biersack, senior fellow at the Center for Responsive Politics. With a new congressional district map drawn by Democrats after the 2010 Census, it's been well known for a year or more that there would be strong competition for Republican-held seats, he said.
That means more candidate fundraising, party involvement and therefore a better-informed electorate less susceptible to outside influence, Biersack said. And piling up money for or against a candidate isn't enough — timing is key.
Television advertising, for example, is most effective when it makes a first impression on a voter, or at the tail end of a campaign.
"Those are the images that stay with people. They have a pretty short shelf life," Biersack said. "It's possible that it depends a lot on how it was done, when it was done, what the nature of those races was at different times."
According to Duckworth's campaign, it was tuned-in voters who put her over the top, not critical commercials. A spokesman for Walsh did not respond to a request for comment.
"When Tammy was out on the trail, people would tell her all the time, they knew these ads weren't true," Duckworth spokesman Anton Becker said. "They started to lose their value, even with all that money."
Contact John O'Connor at https://www.twitter.com/apoconnor
Federal Election Commission independent expenditures: http://tinyurl.com/75xqbb5