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Correction to This Article
This article about campaign spending by interest groups incorrectly described former George W. Bush administration adviser Karl Rove as a co-founder of the group American Crossroads. A spokesman for the group, Jonathan Collegio, said Rove encouraged the founding of the organization but was not a founder.
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Interest-group spending for midterm up fivefold from 2006; many sources secret

Voters head to polls in one last big round of primaries before midterms.

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Flexibility for the GOP

Heightened spending by outside groups has given the Republican Party flexibility in choosing which races to focus on. In West Virginia, the GOP recently spent $1.2 million backing businessman John Raese for the Senate seat long held by Robert C. Byrd, who died in June. The contest had been considered safe for the Democrats, whose candidate, Joe Manchin III, is the state's governor. But Manchin's poll numbers have recently slipped.

While the interest-group money has primarily helped Republicans, Democrats have proved better at raising money for the party itself and for individual candidates. Those donations must, by law, come from individuals and are limited in size. Much of the interest-group spending, by contrast, has been based on large contributions from well-heeled donors and corporations.

The Supreme Court cleared the way for unlimited spending by corporations, unions and other interest groups on election ads in its 5 to 4 decision this year in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. Many interest groups are organized as nonprofits, which are not required to disclose their financial backing, helping fuel the increase in secret donors.

The Post analyzed spending numbers that groups are required to report to the FEC, including spending on broadcast ads mentioning a candidate's name within 30 days of a primary and 60 days of the general election. Some expenditures - and donors - are not revealed. Many groups, for example, avoid reporting what they spend on attacks by making a subtle distinction, saying their message is focused on candidates' positions on issues instead of the election itself.

One reason Democrats have benefited less from interest-group spending may be the party's - and President Obama's - message against the role of moneyed interests in Washington. And in his 2008 campaign, Obama discouraged such independent interest groups on the left from forming.

Some Democratic groups have lowered their spending on election ads. The Internet-based advocacy group MoveOn.org will spend roughly the same amount it did in the 2006 midterms, said Executive Director Justin Ruben, but will concentrate on organizing supporters instead of trying to compete on the airwaves.

"We can't possibly match this spending dollar for dollar," Ruben said. "Turnout is big in a midterm, and the best way to affect turnout is person-to-person contact. These groups have a few millionaires, but they can't talk to that many people."

Organized as nonprofits

Conservative groups such as Americans for Job Security and Crossroads GPS, an arm of the American Crossroads group, co-founded by former George W. Bush administration adviser Karl Rove, are organized as nonprofits and don't have to disclose who is giving them money. Some liberal groups, such as the League of Conservation Voters, an environmental group, are also nonprofits but raise money on a much smaller scale.

One major player this year is the 60 Plus Association, an Alexandria-based group that bills itself as the conservative alternative to the AARP seniors group. In 2008, the group reported less than $2 million in revenue, most of it from direct-mail contributions.

This year the group has spent $7 million on election-related ads, according to its FEC reports. It also funded a $9 million campaign against Obama's health-care overhaul in 2009.

The group is somewhat renowned for its take-no-prisoners approach to advertising, alleging in recent spots that multiple Democrats have "betrayed seniors." The journalistic research Web site PolitiFact.com called the ads "highly misleading" in describing the funding outlook for Medicare.

But 60 Plus spokesman Tom Kise defended the ads and said the group's rapidly expanded budget was due to widespread opposition to Democratic policies on issues affecting senior citizens.

"We've never had this kind of threat to seniors before," Kise said. "We are in unprecedented times, which calls for unprecedented measures."

In earlier years, 60 Plus received significant grants from foundations connected to Pfizer and other major drugmakers, according to AARP. Kise declined to provide details about the group's donors but said it is not taking money from the pharmaceutical industry.

farnamt@washpost.com eggend@washpost.com

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