WASHINGTON — If the 2010 campaign signals that the dam on political giving has burst, Missouri is already awash in campaign cash.
Special interest groups have already spent more than $6 million to affect the outcome of the Missouri Senate race, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, a campaign finance watchdog dog.
But according to the candidates’ own tracking of outside spending, it is likely even higher. On top of that, the identities of a lot of the donors are secret.
As Democrat Robin Carnahan, the Missouri secretary of state, and Republican Rep. Roy Blunt battle over an open Senate seat, independent expenditures by outside groups account for nearly a third of all the campaign dollars raised so far.
And more is likely on the way.
“We’re seeing a lot more independent money flowing in this year than we have in the past,” said Peverill Squire, a professor of political science at the University of Missouri. “It’s going to be a very expensive race. As long as the polls show that it’s still competitive, we’re going to see unlimited money on both sides.”
It’s all part of a massive midterm election spending spree by corporations, unions and other outside groups no longer hemmed in by contribution limits.
The U.S. Supreme Court last January in case known as Citizens United gave a “green light to corporations and unions to spend unlimited amounts on ads and other campaign activities that can urge voters to directly oppose or support individual candidates,” according to a report last week from the nonpartisan Center for Public Integrity.
The center, an investigative journalism group that focuses on government transparency, called the new spending landscape “a virtual Wild West, with fewer rules and more cash than ever.”
But what’s also new in this campaign is that a lot of donors now remain unidentified. The tax code under which many of the new independent groups have been set up requires them to reveal their donors only to the IRS.
This leaves the public in the dark as to who is actually paying for many of the campaign ads now dominating local television.
“There’s a lot of no-fingerprints money floating around out there,” said David Vance, a spokesman for the nonpartisan Campaign Legal center, which focuses on campaign-related issues.
Independent expenditures are funds spent to aid or oppose a candidate and are not coordinated with a campaign. Corporations, unions, environmental groups, advocates for social and cultural issues and a host of other concerns all wade in.
They’ve poured half a billion dollars into Senate and House races this year already, according to a new study by the Center for Public Integrity, and there’s still three weeks left before Election Day.
It said that conservative groups tilted toward Republicans have a clear advantage and could outspend their Democratic-leaning counterparts by 2-1.
At $16 million, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is a leading independent expenditure group, according to groups which track campaign spending. At least $1 million of that money has been spent on ads in Missouri.
The chamber has come under fire this week over allegations that it accepted illegal foreign donations and that some of the money has been used to finance its issue ad campaigns in support of Republican candidates, like Blunt.
Blunt campaign spokesman Rich Chrismer directed questions about the controversy to the chamber, which has denied the claim.
Another group taking advantage of the new terrain is Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies, started by Karl Rove, a top White political operative under former President George W. Bush, and Ed Gillespie, a former Republican Party national chairman.
Crossroads GPS and its sister group, American Crossroads, recently purchased $4.2 million worth of campaign advertising in Missouri and seven other states with competitive Senate contests. They plan to raise $52 million to defeat Democrats this year.
Both groups combined have spent $1.5 million already in Missouri against Carnahan, according to opensecrets, and much more is in pipeline.
“Missouri is a must-win state for Republicans who want to put the brakes on the Obama agenda in the Senate,” said Crossroads spokesman Jonathan Collegio. “It's the quintessential swing state, and the Democrat there is running a particularly hard-edged campaign.”
Meanwhile, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union has spent nearly $1 million on anti-Blunt ads, and the League of Conservation Voters has spent $400,000.
Overall, independent groups opposed to Blunt have spent $3.4 million on issue advocacy ads, while groups opposed to Carnahan have spent more than $1 million, according to opensecrets.
The Carnahan campaign, however, said that its own analysis of ad buys at Missouri television and radio stations was more up-to-date.
It indicates that so far, pro-Blunt and pro-Carnahan groups have each either spent or made plans to spend close to $8 million on issue ads against one candidate or the other. The bulk of the spending benefiting Carnahan comes from the independent arm of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
“After carrying the water for out-of-state interests for years, Congressman Blunt is cashing in as lobbyists make a down payment on their special interest candidate,” said Carnahan spokesman Linden Zakula.
Chrismer countered: “Robin Carnahan’s liberal allies In Washington D.C. have been airing ads since April 2009 because they know she will be a rubberstamp for Barack Obama. They are willing to spend as much as it takes to try and buy this election.”