-- Nearly half of the nation's House and Senate candidates raised $1 million or more in contributions for the 2008 election, about two-thirds more than a decade ago, campaign-finance reports show.
Watchdog groups say ever-more-costly campaigns benefit incumbents, who have an easier time raising big dollars.
"Unlike the stock market, the cost of campaigns doesn't go up and down," said Fred Wertheimer, president of the non-partisan watchdog group Democracy 21. "It is a straight growth curve."
The USA TODAY analysis includes Federal Election Commission filings covering Jan. 1, 2007 through Nov. 24, 2008. Numbers from past years are adjusted for inflation. The analysis finds:
• Fifty-five Senate candidates and 364 House candidates toppled the $1 million mark, up 63% from 1998 and 8% from last year.
• The median cost of a congressional campaign increased from under $690,000 in 1998 to just over $1 million in 2008.
• Democrats, who added 21 House and seven Senate seats to their majorities, raised 27% more campaign money than Republicans in the 2008 election cycle.
"It's demeaning and it's time consuming, but it's part of our democracy now," James Thurber, director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University, said of big-ticket campaigns.
Minnesota's Senate race, which is still undecided, was the most expensive in 2008. Republican Sen. Norm Coleman and Democrat Al Franken raised a combined $39 million.
Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., has beaten his opponent by nearly 2 to 1 in every election since 1998. Despite wide support, his fundraising more than doubled in that time to $1.2 million.
Peterson said he supports public financing. "Does this money have influence? I think it does," he said. "Some people put in too much money, like Wall Street for example … I think you can have certain industries that get too much power."