By Fredreka Schouten, USA TODAY
WASHINGTON -- Republican megadonors placed a huge bet on red in this election and lost.
Outside spending in presidential and congressional races surpassed $1 billion with more than $715 million targeting President Obama, who won a second term, and congressional Democrats, who strengthened their grip on the Senate in the face of record independent spending. The withering advertising barrage also did little to change the partisan makeup of the House, where Republicans maintained their majority.
"They spent $1 billion, and got a return of the status quo," said Anthony Corrado, a campaign-finance expert at Colby College in Maine.
Republican groups prevailed in roughly a third of the contests where they outspent Democratic organizations, according to a USA TODAY analysis of races with at least $1 million in outside political activity in the general election. Spending by liberal groups appeared to be more effective: Democrats won two-thirds of the races in which Democratic-leaning groups outspent Republicans, the analysis shows.
One of the biggest spenders - American Crossroads, a super PAC backed by former Bush administration strategist Karl Rove - had a lower rate of return than any other group in the general election, according to a tally by the nonpartisan Sunlight Foundation.
Overall, American Crossroads and an affiliated nonprofit, spent more than $175.8 million during the entire election cycle. Of the 10 candidates they spent the most to defeat, only one - Nevada Democratic Rep. Shelley Berkley - lost. More than $113 million targeted Obama.
Crossroads spokesman Jonathan Collegio said the group helped GOP nominee Mitt Romney remain competitive and donors understand that. "Anyone who invests in a campaign or a super PAC knows there is a degree of risk involved in that investment in a political climate where an incumbent president can out-raise his challenger by hundreds of millions of dollars," he said.
Collegio said the election also showed that candidates matter.
In Indiana, Democrats picked up a once-safe Republican Senate seat after Rep. Joe Donnelly beat Republican Richard Mourdock. Mourdock faltered in the final weeks of the campaign when he said a pregnancy caused by rape was something intended by God.
The Crossroads groups spent more than $4.7 million to oppose Donnelly. Mourdock also was aided by the anti-tax Club for Growth group, which backed him over veteran Republican Sen. Richard Lugar in the primary.
"We've lost at least six Senate races in the last two cycles because of sub-optimal candidate quality," Collegio said.
Club for Growth spokesman Barney Keller said the group does not regret its decision to boost Mourdock. "He would have won had he not said what he did two weeks before the election," Keller said.
Ron Reese, a spokesman for this election's top megadonor, casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, did not respond to interview requests Wednesday. Adelson and his wife, Miriam, have donated more than $50 million to super PACs.
Other billionaire donors touted their accomplishments. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg spent more than $8.2 million in the final weeks of the campaign to aid candidates who back his positions on gun control and gay marriage. He also gave $750,000 to support successful same-sex marriage initiatives in four states, said Stefan Friedman, a spokesman for Bloomberg's Independence USA PAC.
Is more spending likely in future elections? "That's certainly a possibility after the successes of last night," Friedman said.
Tuesday marked the first presidential contest after the Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision, which allows unlimited corporate and union money in federal races. In all, spending by candidates, political parties and outside groups is projected to hit an unprecedented $6 billion when all expenses are tallied.
While the spending did not alter Washington's partisan makeup, the sheer amount gushing into the presidential and congressional races led to renewed calls Wednesday for changes to campaign-finance rules. Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., said he plans to push for more disclosure of political spending, an idea that has not previously gained much traction in Congress.
Some Republicans argue it's time to dismantle contribution limits to give political parties equal footing with outside groups. "We should start with strengthening the political parties and not limiting free speech," said Texas Sen. John Cornyn, the Republican who oversees election efforts in the Senate.
Contributing: Christopher Schnaars