Outside Groups Shoveling Cash Into Tight Races

By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum and Zachary A. Goldfarb
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, October 3, 2006

As the race for control of Congress turns toward its final sprint to Election Day, independent organizations with ideological or commercial stakes in the outcome are pouring record amounts of money into the closest contests -- in some cases eclipsing the spending of the candidates themselves.

In Ohio, Rep. Deborah Pryce, the fourth-ranking Republican in the House, was attacked by nearly $1 million in negative commercials this summer. But her Democratic opponent, Franklin County Commissioner Mary Jo Kilroy, did not pay for any of them.

They were bankrolled instead by trial lawyers, labor unions and the liberal group MoveOn.org. In fact, outside groups appear to have spent more in that period than Pryce and Kilroy combined, a pattern that is being duplicated in some of the most competitive campaigns across the country.

Politically active groups on both the left and the right are shelling out dollars faster than in any previous midterm election and focusing them intensely on the races that are up for grabs. Even with five weeks to go in the campaign, the $34 million in "independent expenditures" so far is nearly double the amount spent in the entire 2002 midterm election, according to PoliticalMoneyLine.com.

This year's figure includes spending by the parties' House and Senate campaign committees, which unlike in 2002 are no longer allowed to coordinate directly with candidates for major ad buys, and by the "527" groups that emerged after an overhaul of funding laws that year.

Independent spending by political organizations -- such as the George Soros-funded liberal group America Coming Together and the group Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, which took aim at Democratic nominee John F. Kerry's Vietnam War record -- was a defining force in the 2004 presidential campaign. What's notable this time, with control of Congress and many governorships at stake, is how such spending has migrated to elections for lesser offices.

During the 2004 election, Democrats seemed to benefit most from independent spending. Now the balance appears to be tilting rightward: America Coming Together and its companion group, the Media Fund, are largely shuttered. Meanwhile, a leading backer of the Swift Boat group, Texas developer Bob J. Perry, has donated $5 million focusing on top GOP target races.

But in Maryland, as in some other places, Democrats are still benefiting. The Maryland Fund, a 527 led by several national Democratic operatives with ties to the state, started airing television and radio ads last week critical of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R), who is being challenged by Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley (D). The ads seek to link Ehrlich to President Bush, whose approval ratings lag behind the governor's in the state.

Stephen R. Weissman, associate director for policy at the nonpartisan Campaign Finance Institute, predicted that "in some key races, this outsider spending will be decisive."

Expenditures by outside interest groups have ballooned largely in reaction to the 2002 law banning "soft money," the uncapped contributions that previously filled the coffers of both political parties. Once those unlimited donations were outlawed for the parties, lobby groups started handing out the big money.

In Hawaii, for example, the National Association of Realtors spent more than $600,000 in support of Rep. Ed Case, who lost the recent Democratic primary for the Senate to the incumbent, Daniel K. Akaka. The Realtors' eye-popping gift -- the group's largest ever in a primary -- nearly matched the entire amount raised by Case. "Mr. Case has a really strong record supporting issues important to Realtors," a spokeswoman for the group explained. "We decided to go all out."

MoveOn.org has also spared little expense. The liberal group's political action committee has laid out $3.5 million on commercials attacking GOP candidates in six congressional districts. It spent $465,000 against veteran Rep. Nancy L. Johnson (R-Conn.) in late spring and summer, while her Democratic opponent, Chris Murphy, doled out $181,000. MoveOn.org also expended $245,000 against Rep. Chris Chocola (R-Ind.) during the same period, while Joe Donnelly, his opponent, spent roughly half that amount.

Organizations, sometimes with mysterious origins, are cropping up everywhere and spending massively in the toughest races. A group called Softer Voices is boosting Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) with an expenditure of nearly $700,000. A group called Campaign Money Watch is attacking Pryce and Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) with $200,000.

Labor unions are betting especially big. The AFL-CIO alone is helping Democratic candidates with a $40 million get-out-the-vote effort, its largest ever during an off-year election. Labor's nemesis, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, is devoting an equal sum to elections this autumn and is concentrating on efforts to bring voters to the polls.

One of the Democrats' leading architects of the independent-spending movement, former White House aide Harold Ickes, recently started what he calls the September Fund. Erik Smith, the fund's president, said, "There was a belief by those of us who organized this that one side of the argument -- the Bush administration and its allies -- would have a lot more resources than the other." But he added: "We're not going to make up the shortfall."

To help Democratic candidates, the September Fund intends to raise at least $10 million and buy ads that criticize Bush. But several Republican-leaning groups have already purchased millions of dollars of airtime supporting Bush's policies and, by inference, GOP candidates. They also have money available to buy even more commercials, and they plan to do so.

These groups include Progress for America, a major player in 2004 that has been on the air this year in Ohio and Missouri, states in which incumbent Republican senators Mike DeWine and James M. Talent, respectively, are in tough fights to keep their jobs. Another, the California-based Economic Freedom Fund, has spent more than $700,000 opposing Democratic Reps. Leonard L. Boswell (Iowa), Alan B. Mollohan (W.Va.) and Jim Marshall (Ga.), three members of a small circle of Democrats at any risk of losing their seats this fall. The fund was boosted by a $5 million gift from Perry.

The intervention of outside groups, especially at high levels, can be a mixed blessing. Maureen O'Brien Donovan, spokeswoman for Rep. John E. Sweeney (R-N.Y.), asserted that MoveOn.org's commercials against her boss have backfired. "Its intervention and its volunteers aren't from here, and that's well known to the general public," she said. "People who have lived here all their lives find those types of things suspect."

At the same time, candidates cannot control the groups' messages or their delivery, which sometimes causes voter confusion. "Nobody knows who these guys are, and voters have no way of judging their interests or their donors," said George Rasley, Pryce's spokesman.

In addition, the independent efforts are sometimes heavy-handed and irritate the voters they are supposed to attract. The Chocola campaign, for instance, received complaints from voters who were annoyed by automated phone calls they had received from an outside group that was supporting his reelection.

The number of independent organizations, some of them anonymous, has multiplied. On the left, a patchwork of innocuous-sounding organizations has sprouted, including Majority Action, which wants to unseat 10 to 15 Republican congressmen, and America Votes, which is trying to prevent Democratic-leaning groups from duplicating one another's work. Large sums are flowing from these and more established groups. Emily's List, which helps female, pro-abortion-rights Democrats, expects to spend about $10 million this year, and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, a labor union, anticipates spending $22 million.

On the right, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce plans to allocate $20 million to help federal candidates and another $20 million for state and local races. The American Medical Association is also a serious player. It recently reported $307,125 spent in support of GOP Rep. Johnson in Connecticut.

The generally pro-Republican Business Industry Political Action Committee has a more elaborate scheme. By using companies' electronic communications systems, it has delivered 40 million messages to employees urging them to cast their ballots for pro-business candidates. It has also helped a million citizens register to vote and another million apply for early voting forms.

All of these efforts are sure to make a difference. "When you have the ability to spend one to three million dollars down the stretch in a particular House or Senate race, that kind of spending can really drive the election," said Michael E. Toner, chairman of the Federal Election Commission. "That can decide who wins or loses on Election Day."

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