WASHINGTON — In one way at least, the fight for control of Congress is grossly one-sided.
Just five weeks from midterm elections, groups allied with the Republican Party and financed in part by corporations and millionaires have amassed a crushing 6-1 advantage in television spending, and now are dominating the airwaves in closely contested districts and states across the country.
The extra firepower on the conservative side comes as some key Democratic-leaning organizations are experiencing unexpected trouble raising money or motivating supporters.
The advertising mismatch, reflected in campaign documents obtained by The Associated Press, is hampering efforts by President Barack Obama and Democratic leaders to sway a shrinking number of undecided voters. Early voting has already begun in some states, and Republicans are positioned to win a number of House and Senate seats, placing Democratic control of both chambers in jeopardy.
Helped by looser fundraising rules, about two dozen organizations intended to benefit Republicans are active this fall in House and Senate races; fewer than 10 are aimed at helping Democrats. Ad spending by GOP allies over the past two months has totaled nearly $30 million in 15 states with competitive Senate or House races; Democratic outside groups have spent less than $5 million. And even more money, perhaps from even more groups, is expected to roll out in the final month of the campaign.
Democratic strategists say it has been far easier to raise money from big-time party donors in past elections, when Democrats were seeking to unseat Republicans with promises of change. Defending seats has not created the same sense of urgency, they said. Moreover, some Democrats blame disillusionment with Obama and the Democratic-controlled Congress. And labor is devoting much of its general election money on get-out-the-vote efforts, not on high visibility television ads.
"It would be a very different situation in the rest of the country if the progressive base and the Democratic groups were fighting back," said Craig Varoga, a Democratic strategist who is mounting a campaign in the Senate race in Nevada, one of the few waging an air war on the Democrats' side.
"Some people unfortunately were waiting for the economy or for circumstances to magically change and they haven't," he said, explaining the lopsided support for GOP groups.
The sheer numbers, spelled out in the documents, tell the story.
— In Colorado's contest between Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet and Republican Ken Buck, Republican allied groups have spent more than $4 million in advertising in the state, most of it on ads against Bennet. Democratic-leaning outside groups have been virtually silent. [See who is giving to Bennet's campaign.]
— In Washington state, Democratic Sen. Patty Murray is facing an onslaught from Republican-connected organizations in her race against Dino Rossi, with more than $2 million spent in August and September against her by conservative groups. A new Democratic group, Commonsense Ten, just weighed in with a $400,000 advertising effort. [Read more news about Murray.]
— Republican groups are also mounting a strong defense to hold onto Republican seats. They poured more than $2 million into New Hampshire opposing Democratic Rep. Paul Hodes who is vying for the seat held by retiring Republican Sen. Judd Gregg. Similarly, GOP groups have spent more than $2.5 million in Missouri, much against Democrat Robin Carnahan who is seeking the seat held by retiring Republican Sen. Kit Bond. The money outguns Commonsense Ten and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which have been running ads against Carnahan's opponent, Rep. Roy Blunt,
— Nevada, where Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is battling for his political life, stands out as one bright spot for Democrats. Varoga's Patriot Majority, a group heavily financed by unions, has spent more than $1.5 million in ads targeting Reid's opponent, Republican Sharron Angle. The National Republican Senatorial Committee has been forced to weigh in with $700,000 in ad spending to keep the contest financially even. [Read 10 Things You Didn't Know About Harry Reid.]
The most significant players in the advertising assault on Senate Democratic candidates are the affiliated American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS, launched under the direction of former Bush administration political operative Karl Rove, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Together, the three groups account for about $13 million in ad spending.
So far, the action is more limited in House races but still very much tilted toward Republicans.
Four GOP-leaning groups are spending more than $6 million combined in roughly three dozen races to less than $1 million for Democratic interests, led by the Service Employees International Union.
In many cases, the Republican allies are the only outside groups on the air. For example, Americans for Tax Reform is spending nearly $200,000 to help topple Democratic Rep. Ben Chandler of Kentucky, while Americans for Job Security is up with $230,000 in ads in New York's 24th Congressional District against Democratic Rep. Michael Arcuri.
Still, there are signs that Democratic-aligned groups are becoming more active in the final weeks. The SEIU has weighed in the last few days with $450,000 in Ohio's 16th Congressional District to help Democratic Rep. John Boccieri and $250,000 in Michigan's 7th district to counter attacks on freshman Democratic Rep. Mark Schauer.
The GOP is getting additional help from some groups that don't even weigh in directly in congressional races. Americans for Prosperity, a conservative group started by billionaire conservative David Koch, has spent about $5.5 million in key House battlegrounds with ads that don't mention candidates but criticize Obama's policies.
The financial advantage by outside GOP groups makes up for anemic fundraising by the Republican Party. The party's national committees trail their Democratic counterparts in overall contributions and overall cash on hand. That imbalance has helped Democrats respond to the avalanche of ads from GOP-allied groups in some key battlegrounds, but that is money Democrats also would have preferred to have in hand for a final campaign thrust in October.
The GOP groups appear to be benefiting from a Supreme Court ruling earlier this year that freed big business — which typically leans Republican — to spend their millions directly to sway federal elections. What's more, several of the groups are set up as nonprofit corporations under the Internal Revenue Service code, and they don't have to reveal their donors.
"You've gone to a world where the Supreme Court has said corporations have a constitutional right to do this spending," said Trevor Potter, a campaign finance lawyer who was counsel to John McCain's Republican presidential campaign. "That green light has been very important."