The frenzy underscores the increasingly prominent role of Crossroads and other independent groups, which have been freed by recent court rulings to raise and spend unlimited amounts of money. Dozens of “super PACs” and other nonprofit groups have formed over the past year to take advantage of those decisions, including a Supreme Court ruling allowing unfettered spending by corporations and unions.
In addition to the New York race, a new pro-Democratic group called Priorities USA Action began running ads in South Carolina on Friday attacking potential GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney, marking the first official television ad in the race for the White House.
“This is basically a dry run for 2012,” said Meredith McGehee, executive director of the Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan group that favors stronger regulation of political expenditures. “As we get closer to the November 2012 elections, each side is testing their game and seeing what works. It’s a whole new ballgame.”
The New York race is the latest sign that 2012 is likely to be a particularly active election for outside political groups, which are not constrained by the same contribution limits as the candidates and political parties. Such groups broke records for midterm elections in 2010, and they appear poised to do the same next year.
One new group called the Republican Super PAC, for example, plans to actively coordinate fundraising with incumbents and favored challengers. Founder James Bopp, a Republican lawyer who has spearheaded numerous challenges to campaign-finance laws, has said he believes a federal ban on coordination between candidates and independent groups applies only to spending, not fundraising.
Two Democratic-leaning groups, Majority PAC and House Majority PAC, have responded by asking the Federal Election Commission to weigh in on the legality of Bopp’s approach. The two groups say they will also enlist the help of lawmakers in raising money if the FEC says it is allowed.
The loosened regulations have helped fuel a spending spree in New York’s 26th District, which features a three-way race between Republican Jane Corwin, Democrat Kathy Hochul and self-described tea party candidate Jack Davis. The candidates are vying to replace Lee, who resigned in February after a gossip Web site released a shirtless picture that the married congressman allegedly sent to a woman he met online.