This fall’s state election set at least two Massachusetts political spending records: the most outside money dropped on a governor’s race — $16.9 million on the general election alone — and the most cash poured into ballot campaigns, at $28 million.
But even in an era of supercharged political spending, it’s not clear that money can buy an election.
A small group of conservative activists pushing to repeal automatic increases in the state’s gas tax won their referendum fight, even as contractors and engineers eager for gas-tax-funded road and bridge work outspent them 31 to 1.
Warren Tolman lost a hotly contested Democratic primary for attorney general, despite shelling out $700,000 more than rival Maura Healey.
And in the governor’s race, political operatives are split over whether Charlie Baker’s financial edge on Martha Coakley made a significant difference.
The big spending came amid considerable concern about the impact of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which allows unlimited corporate and union spending in elections.
Coakley, in a post-election press conference, blamed her defeat partly on the decision — and on one group, in particular, that is funded by sizable corporate contributions.
“I think we’ve seen the ability, because of Citizens United, for outside groups, largely anonymously, to come in and target a particular race,” she said. “There’s no mystery to the fact that we were outspent 10 to 1 in negative advertising by the Republican Governors Association. I don’t think that’s a good trend for Massachusetts or for the country.”
The line drew applause from supporters. But the impact of the Supreme Court decision was more complicated than Coakley suggested.
The ruling has undoubtedly accelerated a trend toward greater outside spending, all over the country. And that was felt in Massachusetts.
In 2010, independent groups spent a total of $11.5 million on all state-level races — from governor to state representative, primaries and general elections included.
This year, super PACs and other outside organizations dropped $16.9 million on the general election phase of the governor’s race alone, according to the state’s Office of Campaign and Political Finance.
But Citizens United had no substantive impact on the biggest players in the Massachusetts gubernatorial race: the Republican Governors Association (RGA) and the Democratic Governors Association (DGA). Those organizations, which routinely disclose their donors, were allowed to take big corporate and union checks long before the decision came down.
And while the RGA outspent the DGA by a wide margin, as Coakley suggested, that tells only part of the story. The DGA teamed up with unions and a women’s group to form a super PAC that narrowed the gap considerably.
The main RGA-backed super PAC in the governor’s race spent $9.9 million, versus $6.3 million for its Democratic counterpart, according to campaign finance records.
Something very similar happened in the governor’s race four years ago. In that contest, the RGA spent $4.6 million, compared to the $3.1 million invested by the DGA and a pair of unions. And it was the underfunded Democrat, Deval Patrick, who won that race.
John Walsh, the architect of Patrick’s campaign, said the Republicans’ financial edge in this year’s race — and the television advertising it bought — may have helped Baker triumph in a tight contest.
Baker and the main pro-Baker super PAC, Commonwealth Future Independent Expenditure Political Action Committee, spent $9.2 million on broadcast television ads during the general election, while Coakley and the pro-Coakley super PAC, Mass Independent Expenditure Political Action Committee, spent $7.1 million, according to an analysis by Kantar Media.
Still, Walsh said, the importance of political advertising is often overstated. With more viewers recording shows on digital video recorders and zooming through commercials or spending time on advertising-free services such as Netflix, television spots are becoming less and less effective.
“We are getting to the point . . . where the emperor has no clothes,” he said.
But Jim Conroy, Baker’s campaign manager, said early spending by the RGA-backed Commonwealth Future “was helpful in building Baker’s name ID and making the race competitive,” which in turn helped the Republican raise money and motivate volunteers.
There are Democrats who share that view. Some in the Coakley camp were frustrated that the DGA was making a comparatively small investment, particularly in a race that was so close and, operatives say, so winnable.
The DGA, though, had a smaller budget than the RGA and was working to protect incumbent governors in expensive races from Connecticut to Illinois to Colorado. In Massachusetts, its super PAC wound up spending more than the Coakley campaign itself.
“The DGA went all in on this race,” said DGA spokesman Danny Kanner. “Unfortunately, Charlie Baker ran a great campaign, and the Coakley campaign came up just short.”
If Baker had an edge of several million dollars in the governor’s race, the gap in the ballot campaigns was yawning.
A coalition of beverage companies and grocers spent $8.8 million to defeat a ballot measure that would have expanded the state’s bottle redemption bill to bottled water, sports drinks, and other noncarbonated beverages.
Nicole Giambusso, a spokeswoman for the “no” campaign, said the money simply allowed the opposition to explain a nuanced position. “It’s the facts that really won it,” she said.
But supporters of the referendum, who spent about $1.5 million, said the beverage companies used their big spending advantage to spread misinformation in television and radio ads, turning a public that was strongly in support of the measure this summer, according to a Globe poll, to sharp opposition by election night.
“There are reasons why a lot of people believe we should keep big corporate money out of our politics,” said Phillip Sego of the Massachusetts Sierra Club, still stunned a few days after the vote. “Our democracy is fragile, and it can easily be destroyed.”
If big money won the bottle fight, though, its impact on other ballot questions was not so clear.
While gambling companies outspent their opponents $13.9 million to $659,000 in their effort to keep the state’s casino law on the books, analysts said that may not have been the deciding factor.
Fred Bayles, a Boston University journalism professor and a longtime observer of Massachusetts ballot campaigns, said the casino companies’ financial edge may have helped them persuade some undecided voters.
But he said the gambling companies, which held a solid lead in the polls for months, probably would have prevailed anyway. The glimmer of casinos, he said, is potent.
“Visceral is too strong a word,” Bayles said. “But this is personal.”
Campaign spending, he argued, was not decisive in the battle over automatic gas tax hikes, either. “It was a real pocketbook issue — ‘This is going to cost me more,’ ” he said.
Poorly financed supporters of repeal, Bayles said, did not need a big megaphone to make that argument.
Joseph T. Baerlein, the public relations executive who ran the “no” campaign on the gas tax measure — his television ads highlighted the importance of bridge and road repair — argued that campaign spending did make a difference. But it wasn’t his side’s $2.6 million to $84,000 advantage over the “yes” campaign that mattered, he said.
The pro-Baker super PAC, he noted, spent millions attacking Coakley on the gas tax. And that constant message — this is a gas tax, not revenue to repair crumbling infrastructure — was insurmountable, he argued.
“We were sort of collateral damage,” said Baerlein, who had never before lost a ballot measure campaign.