Democratic groups catching up late on election spending

By T.W. Farnam and Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, October 27, 2010; 9:43 PM

Unions and other Democratic interest groups are rapidly closing the gap with their conservative opponents in spending on the midterm elections, using fresh support from well-heeled donors to quicken the pace of expenditures in the final days of the campaign.

Democratic leaders from President Obama on down have assailed spending by outside conservative groups, complaining that the business lobby and other GOP allies are pouring millions of dollars into the election as they shield donors from public scrutiny.

But now independent groups that support Democrats - including unions, environmental organizations and new players - are fast gaining ground, often with some of the same techniques condemned by Democrats. The strategies include using money from nonprofits that can keep their donors secret and tapping into union dues to pay for unlimited attack ads.

Nearly $4 of every $10 spent by independent groups last week was aimed at helping Democratic candidates, according to a Washington Post analysis of campaign finance disclosure filings. The number is a dramatic increase from a few weeks earlier, when Democratic allies were being outspent seven to one, the data show.

Once spending by the parties themselves is added to the mix, Democratic candidates are getting the benefit of nearly half - 46 percent - of independent spending reported to the Federal Election Commission. Many Democratic incumbents are also sitting on flush bank accounts that they have been building since the end of the 2008 election.

The trends mean that, overall, Democrats and their allies still have a good chance of outspending Republicans. The pattern undercuts Democratic attempts to blame well-funded conservative groups for an expected wave of losses when voters go to the polls Tuesday.

"The outrage over spending by GOP-leaning outside groups is a political ploy, selective in its focus and hypocritical in its messaging," said Jonathan Collegio, spokesman for American Crossroads, which has reported spending $30 million on behalf of Republicans so far.

A new 'super PAC'

One of the larger spenders on the left barely existed a few weeks ago. America's Families First Action Fund, a "super PAC" that can raise and spend unlimited money, has dumped more than $5 million into 19 House races over the past two weeks, with plans to spend more than $10 million by Tuesday.

Major donors to the group include Obama campaign bundler Orin Kramer, Taco Bell heir Rob McKay and California real estate magnate George M. Marcus, records show. The super PAC's funding also includes $1 million from a nonprofit affiliate, America's Families First, which does not have to report its donors publicly.

Ramona Oliver, a spokeswoman for the super PAC, said the group has nearly doubled its target list of House seats because of a "mini-surge" in donor interest in recent weeks. The group is focused on races, including three open seats, not targeted by other Democratic allies.

"The general philosophy is to look at districts where we could do our piece to shore up the firewall," Oliver said. "We always know we're David to the right-wing Goliath, but we're trying to balance the scales."

Last week, interest groups spent more than $100,000 in 66 House districts across the country. In 29 of them, the Democratic candidate got more help than the Republican.

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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