Tidal wave of outside money swamping 2010 elections

McClatchy NewspapersOctober 4, 2010 

WASHINGTON — Half a billion dollars from independent groups with strong but unofficial connections to Republicans and Democrats is flooding into congressional campaigns across the country this year, according to a study released Monday.

The Center for Public Integrity found that Republican-allied groups are likely to outspend their Democratic-oriented rivals by 3 to 2, and maybe even by 2 to 1. The center is a respected nonprofit, nonpartisan source of investigative journalism devoted to making institutional power transparent and accountable.

While big money in politics is hardly new, there never have been sums of this magnitude in midterm elections. The Center for Responsive Politics, another independent research group, estimates that in 2006, the last nonpresidential federal election year, independent interests spent about $300 million.

Further, never have so many donors been unidentified before elections; so far only about one-third of donors have been identified, the Center for Public Integrity study says.

"What this amounts to, say veteran money and politics watchers, is a virtual Wild West, with fewer rules and more cash than ever," says the study, written by center analyst Peter Stone. Each party's allies now can cite "10 or so deep-pocketed independent groups with plans to spend $10 million-plus helping Senate and House candidates by running expensive ads and/or conducting get-out-the-vote efforts."

Previous elections were waged under rules that limited how much a donor could give. The rules changed this year.

The key reason is January's 5-4 Supreme Court ruling in the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission case. It removed curbs on independent expenditures by corporations and unions, freeing them to spend without limit from their own treasuries on campaign ads and advocacy efforts so long as they're not coordinated with candidate campaigns.

Under tax and campaign-finance laws, most of these independent groups aren't required to disclose their donors until after the elections.

"Now, if you're a company that wants to write a $10 million check to help or hurt a candidate, you can go to town," said Dave Levinthal, a spokesman for the Center for Responsive Politics.

The spending spree also is rooted in other causes, including:

  • This is an unusually competitive year, with control of both houses of Congress up for grabs. Republicans need net gains of 39 seats in the House of Representatives and 10 Senate seats to win majorities.
  • GOP donors are reluctant to trust their donations to Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele, who's been troubled by management and fundraising problems, so they're seeking alternative avenues;
  • Many corporate executives feel battered by the Democrats' overhauls of the nation's health care and financial regulatory systems.

"Some companies in sectors hit hard by new regulations — including financial, energy and health care interests — are grabbing for their checkbooks," the study says, "and they are actively seeking the anonymity provided by new and older independent groups in the post-Citizens United world."

Among the new groups eager to collect and spend is American Crossroads, a nonprofit, Republican-friendly organization that plans to spend $52 million this year "to help a few dozen GOP Senate and House candidates with television ads and get-out-the-vote drives," the study reports.

Among those behind American Crossroads are Karl Rove, the architect of President George W. Bush's successful presidential campaigns, and former Republican Party Chairman Ed Gillespie.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce alone is expected to spend about $75 million; historically, the lion's share of chamber spending promotes conservative Republicans. The conservative Americans for Prosperity, linked to billionaire David Koch, is likely to spend $45 million, while the Commission on Hope, Growth and Opportunity hopes to spend about $25 million. It's run by veteran GOP strategist Scott Reed.

Democratic-aligned groups are trying zealously to catch up.

In August, the AFL-CIO said it would join with the Service Employees International Union and United Food and Commercial Workers for a political effort estimated to cost at least $94 million. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees intends to spend at least $50 million, the center's study reports. America Votes, a coalition of some 400 liberal groups, plans to spend $8.5 million.

The unions plan to zero in on 26 states, notably swing states in which Democrats have done well recently but face trouble this year, such as Nevada, Ohio and Illinois.

However, the GOP-aligned efforts appear to dwarf their Democratic rivals. From Aug. 1 to Sept. 20, the study found, Republican-leaning interests outspent Democrats by about 5 to 1 on ads.

ON THE WEB

Center for Public Integrity report

Center for Responsive Politics

Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission case

Congressional re-election rates

Cook Political Report Senate race ratings

Sabato's Crystal Ball

Contribution limits

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