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Democratic groups catching up late on election spending

He's also in search of something he has lost: the adoration of the American people.

The groups spent $1.4 million last week on Virginia's 5th District contest between Rep. Tom Perriello (D) and state Sen. Robert Hurt (R-Pittsylvania), more than in any other House race. Perriello benefited from 60 percent of the money, with six-figure expenditures on his behalf from the National Education Association, America's Families First Action Fund, and the League of Conservation Voters.

In a last-ditch attempt to shore up its defenses, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee notified the FEC late Tuesday that it was buying nearly $22 million worth of air time in 66 House districts. The purchase includes time in once-safe districts such as those held by Democratic Reps. Gerald E. Connolly (Va.), Bruce Braley (Iowa) and Raul M. Grijalva (Ariz.), illustrating the extent of potential GOP gains next week.

The courts' impact

The increase in outside spending this year is due in part to a series of recent court decisions loosening campaign finance restrictions, including the Supreme Court's ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission , which allows corporations, unions and nonprofit groups to spend unlimited money on elections. The end result is far less control for political parties: About a third of all independent expenditures reported to the FEC this year have come from the two major parties, compared with 54 percent in 2008 and 80 percent in previous cycles.

Conservative groups - boosted by donations from corporations, titans of industry and undisclosed sources - got a head start in taking advantage of the looser climate. Meanwhile, many liberal groups with smaller budgets were largely silent while Democratic candidates were pummeled on the airwaves.

But now Democratic allies are catching up, often by taking advantage of the same court rulings decried by Obama and other Democrats.

Unions, for example, are now able to use dues money to pay for targeted advertising in the weeks leading up to the elections, something that was not possible before Citizens United. This frees up money in the unions' political action committees for other things, including last-minute donations to endangered Democrats.

Larry Scanlon, political director at the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said the high court's ruling will let AFSCME use $17 million in "soft money" in its general treasury for ads. That frees up "hard money" in its PAC, he said.

"In previous cycles, we had to use more of our hard dollars, which are harder to raise, on independent expenditures," Scanlon said. "Now we can use soft money to do that, and we can use hard money in a different way."

The three biggest labor groups - AFSCME, the Service Employees International Union and the National Education Assocation - together have vowed to spend more than $170 million on political activities during the 2010 cycle, although that figure includes money spent in 2009 as well as funds spent this year on state and local races.

Much of the union effort is focused on canvassing, voter registration and other ground-level organizing, rather than television or radio advertising, labor leaders said.

Spokeswoman Candice Johnson said the 700,000-member Communications Workers of America is concentrating its organizing efforts on about 10 states, including Ohio, Pennsylvania, Kentucky and California.

"We can't match the Chamber of Commerce on advertising, but any election turns on turnout," Johnson said. "That's something the union movement is very good at - getting people to the polls."

The Chamber, which has vowed to spend up to $75 million on the midterms, has come under relentless attack from Democrats for keeping its donors secret. But many Democratic-leaning interest groups, including NARAL Pro-Choice America and the League of Conservation Voters, use the same nonprofit structure to cloak their contributors.

Indeed, much of the spending on election communications and turnout operations this year will never be reported, whether on the Republican or the Democratic side. Under federal election law, many groups are required to report only their spending on broadcast advertising.

Many of the political activities by organized labor won't be reported until after the election. But labor groups say they provide more disclosure overall than many other independent groups, through reports to both the FEC and the Department of Labor.

"We're probably under the strictest disclosure requirements of anybody," said Eddie Vale, spokesman for the AFL-CIO.

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