By Dan Eggen and T.W. Farnam
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, November 2, 2010; 11:09 PM
If you think the 2010 elections were expensive, just wait until 2012.
The midterms have shattered spending records for a nonpresidential contest, providing a likely blueprint for the frenzy to come when the White House is up for grabs in two years, according to political consultants, campaign-finance experts and activists from both parties.
The numbers have been driven upward in part by a proliferation of outside interest groups - particularly on the Republican side - that have taken advantage of favorable court rulings to raise and spend money more freely than in the past.
Independent groups have reported spending $270 million so far, but that number does not include tens of millions of dollars more that were not disclosed to the Federal Election Commission. Much of the money has been spent by nonprofit groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce that do not have to reveal the sources of funds.
"It's the how-to for 2012," said Ellen Miller, executive director of the Sunlight Foundation, which tracks money in politics. "It's how to use corporate money, how to use secret money, to buy elections. . . . It's going to be no-holds-barred."
The rise of unfettered anonymous spending poses a policy and political dilemma for President Obama, who has criticized the Supreme Court's decision that corporations can spend unlimited funds on elections and has repeatedly attacked the role of conservative interest groups in the midterms.
Aides and strategists close to Obama are debating how to cope with the issue looking ahead to 2012, according to sources familiar with the talks. White House officials declined to comment.
Obama discouraged independent groups from campaigning on his behalf in 2008, relying on a massive ground-level political operation to raise a record amount of money for a presidential campaign, much of it from small donors.
But he now faces a changed landscape in which major businesses and interest groups can raise unlimited funds, largely in secret, in support of a Republican challenger. Although Obama can call on unions and other traditional Democratic groups, their track record this year suggests they may have a difficult time keeping up.
"My party has some collective soul-searching to do," said Jim Jordan, a Democratic strategist who co-founded Commonsense Ten, a "super PAC" that spent about $3 million in support of Democrats this year. "Obviously, we find this kind of politics distasteful. But we'll have to ask ourselves whether our causes and constituencies are best served by disarming or by getting in the game in a more robust way."
One big new player on the scene this year is American Crossroads and its nonprofit sister group, Crossroads GPS, which was founded with support from GOP strategists Karl Rove and Ed Gillespie. The two groups have together reported spending about $40 million on ads and other election-related activities through Sunday and say they plan to continue through the 2012 election.
Another leading outside group, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, has reported spending $32 million, almost entirely in support of Republicans, FEC data show; the group had said it planned to spend well over $50 million during the 2010 cycle. The top independent Democratic group was the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which has reported spending about $12 million to the FEC.
To be sure, so-called hard money - the dollars directly raised and spent by candidates and parties - remains central to the U.S. political system. The Center for Responsive Politics estimates that total spending for 2010 could hit $4 billion, with outside expenditures, or so-called soft money, accounting for only 10 to 12 percent of that.
But new data also show that the sheer volume of outside expenditures is unprecedented: Independent groups have reported spending twice as much on congressional races this year as they did in 2008, and more than five times as much as they did in 2006, according to a Washington Post analysis.
"I think you'll see a continuation of more money moving from the political committees to outside groups," said John Feehery, a GOP consultant who worked as a senior aide to former House speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.). "You'll see a lot more outside groups being founded on both the right and the left. . . . At this point, they can do anything they want, really."
Most experts also doubt that the legal landscape will change much in the next two years.
Senate Republicans blocked legislation to require corporations and others to disclose their political spending and expected GOP gains in Tuesday's elections make any future action even less likely. Some campaign-finance activists are also pushing for legislation to create a voluntary public financing system for federal elections, but so far have not attracted much Republican support.
Lawrence R. Jacobs, a political scientist at the University of Minnesota, said 2010 provides "the architectural drawings" for the money race in 2012. One of the most important emerging roles for independent groups, he added, will be as surrogates launching attacks without the candidates' involvement.
"These outside groups are basically the nameless, faceless assassins who come in at night to take out the opponents," Jacobs said. "The candidate and party money will no longer have to do the heavy lifting on the negative ads. It's being outsourced to these shadowy groups."