Washington state Senate race flooded by outside donors

WASHINGTON — A group founded by Republican political operative Karl Rove has dropped $800,000 on television advertising opposing Democratic Sen. Patty Murray, just part of the independent expenditures that have flooded into the Washington state Senate race in the past week.

With the election less than a month away, independent organizations ranging from Rove's Crossroads GPO to the National Rifle Association, unions and the Democratic and Republican senatorial campaign committees have spent more than $2.1 million since Oct. 1 on the Senate race, according to the Sunlight Foundation, a non-partisan, non-profit government watchdog group.

The money has mostly paid for wall-to-wall political advertising on the state's television stations. But it also has been used for bumper stickers, fliers, direct mail and computerized telephone calls known as "robocalls."

So far, those opposing Murray have spent about $380,000 more on advertising than those opposing Republican challenger Dino Rossi. Total independent expenditures in the Senate race have reached nearly $3.5 million.

While huge sums of money aren't unusual when it comes to politics, there have never been sums of this magnitude spent in a mid-term election. Before it's over, the spending from independent groups nationwide could reach half a billion dollars, compared with $300 million in the last mid-term, said the Center for Public Integrity Politics, another government watchdog.

In previous elections there were limits on how much contributors could give and strict rules about disclosing the names of contributors.

But a 5-4 decision by the Supreme Court in January removed curbs on independent expenditures by corporations and unions. As long as their efforts weren't coordinated with official candidate campaigns, they could spend without limit.

Both Republicans and Democrats scrambled to set up non-profit groups. Under tax and campaign finance laws, most of these groups aren't required to disclose their donors until after the election.

The high court ruling was expected to favor Republicans, who have traditionally received strong support from the business community but were hampered by contribution limits. To counter the anticipated Republican advantage, some unions have stepped up their campaign spending.

Veteran political observers say the Supreme Court ruling has created a virtual "Wild West," with few rules and more cash than ever.

One of the first groups to emerge was American Crossroads, a Republican-friendly organization founded by Rove, who was President George W. Bush's political guru, and Ed Gillespie, a former chairman of the Republican Party. Their goal was to raise $52 million.

American Crossroads was created under IRS regulations that allow it to accept unlimited donations and spend all of its money on political advocacy. But it must also disclose the names of its largest contributors monthly.

Rove's Crossroads GPS is spinoff of American Crossroads. It can receive unlimited contributions, but because it has non-profit status it doesn't have to release information on its donors.

Though Rove's groups have been the most visible, others have formed, including Democratic-leaning ones.

Common Sense Ten has spent $412,000 opposing Rossi, and CSS Action Fund — formally known as Citizens and Strength and Security Action Fund — has spent $640,000 on ads supporting Murray. Both have ties to Democratic operatives based in Washington, D.C.

The Republican and Democratic senatorial campaign committees have upped their spending in recent days. The National Republican Senatorial Committee has spent $541,000 on ads opposing Murray, while the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has spent $399,000 opposing Rossi.

More traditional groups have also been active in the Washington Senate race. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees has spent $200,000 on ads opposing Rossi, while the NRA has spent $167,000 on ads supporting him.

Compared with these expenditures, such groups as the anti-abortion National Right to Life and pro-abortion NARAL Pro-choice America have spent little. So far, National Right to Life has spent $22,700 mostly on mailings, and NARAL only $230.

One veterans group, Votevets Action Fund, has spent $160,000 on mailings and robocalls in support of Murray.

Congressional Democrats have tried to overturn the Supreme Court decision and impose stricter regulations requiring disclosure of contributor names. The House passed such legislation in June, but Republicans in the Senate twice blocked the measure.

Murray supported the legislation.

"She believes voters have a right to know who is paying for these ads and why," said Julie Edwards, a spokeswoman for the Murray campaign.

Rossi had said early in the campaign that he wasn't satisfied with the bill, but a campaign spokeswoman didn't answer e-mails Friday requesting his official position.

(David Lightman of the Washington Bureau contributed.)