Outside Spending Makes 2010 Elections Look Like Presidential Races

Groups flush with coin and agendas are flooding voters with a plethora of ads.

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These nonprofit groups defend the ability to maintain their donors' anonymity because, they argue, that anonymity protects the right to free speech and association. The groups point to recent history in which state governments and others have used donor rolls to harass or intimidate, for instance, civil rights activists and unpopular political movements like the Socialist Workers Party. More recently, activists in California used campaign donation rolls to locate and harass supporters of an anti-gay marriage ballot initiative. What's more, donor transparency might not be all it's cracked up to be in the political process. University of Oregon political scientist Gerald Berk told a colloquium of campaign finance experts at the U.S. Capitol last week that voters might ultimately be turned off by knowing the origins of all campaign messages. "Maybe disclosure is bad because it makes voters cynical," he said.

Vote for or against. Historically, the largest share of outside campaign communications in an election cycle has been made up of independent expenditures, which can include spending on mailings, phone banks, and canvassing, in addition to radio and television ads.

A recent independent expenditure ad in Pennsylvania rapped Democratic Rep. Jason Altmire, for example, for supporting Nancy Pelosi, telling voters in no uncertain terms: "It's time to vote Altmire out." That ad was paid for by Americans for Job Security, which has already spent a total of $4.4 million on such communications this cycle in races around the country, according to federal election data.

Independent expenditures by such groups have jumped dramatically. Consider this: In the 2006 midterms, party committees accounted for 83 percent of all independent expenditures, while the remaining 17 percent came from nonaligned groups. This midterm, 59 percent of all outside spending on independent expenditures has come from those nonaligned groups, while only 41 percent has come from party committees, according to Federal Election Commission data crunched by the Sunlight Foundation, a pro-transparency group.

Even independent expenditures have limits. Many of the groups at issue in the current election, called 501(c)4s and 501(c)6s for the section of the tax code under which they are organized, are prohibited from devoting more than half their total expenditures on such "political activities." But these outside groups are allowed to spend unlimited amounts on other activities including "electioneering communications," also known as "issue ads" which do not count as political activities. Issue ads, despite their benign description, are highly political, most often attacking or applauding a politician's stance on a topic in ways that, to voters, make them nearly indistinguishable from standard political ads.

In Iowa, for example, a group called the American Future Fund took aim at Democratic Rep. Bruce Braley for his support of the planned construction of an Islamic community center and mosque in lower Manhattan. "It's like the Japanese building at Pearl Harbor," the ad says, urging voters to call Braley and "tell him what you think." What the ads are not allowed to do is explicitly call for Braley's defeat or his opponent's election.

While these "issue ads" are ostensibly nonpolitical, they can be as potent as any regular political attack ad. In Ohio, for instance, an electioneering TV ad recently ran that criticized Republican gubernatorial candidate John Kasich for the time he spent as a manager at the now-defunct investment bank Lehman Brothers. "Ask John Kasich how he got rich on Wall Street," urges the ad, which was paid for by the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees.

[See political cartoons about the GOP.]

A U.S. News analysis of campaign finance data shows that one of the most visible contributors to this election's high price tag is the increase in spending on these electioneering communications. Even now, with only days of campaigning left until Election Day, the $74.4 million spent thus far on such communication in the 2010 election cycle represents a more than fivefold increase over the $13.7 million spent in 2006.