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Outside Groups’ Campaign Expenditures Have Doubled

Outside organizations have shelled out twice as much on ads and other electioneering activities to affect Congressional races so far during the 2010 election cycle as they did two years ago.

Unions, political parties and advocacy groups have spent more than $34.2 million on independent expenditures so far during this election, compared with less than $16.2 million at this time in the 2008 election, according to a CQ MoneyLine study of Federal Election Commission reports.

“It’s staggering amounts of money,” said David Vance, spokesman for the Campaign Legal Center. “People have made big promises to spend, but so far they are keeping pace with those big promises.”

Through the third week of August, these organizations doled out more than $18 million on independent expenditures for and against Senate candidates, which is 10 times more than the amount spent on Senate races during the same period two years ago.

The race that attracted the most money was the May 18 Democratic Senate primary in Arkansas, in which incumbent Sen. Blanche Lincoln defeated Lt. Gov. Bill Halter. More than 82 percent of the nearly $9.5 million spent on independent expenditures favored Halter. But he only received 48 percent of the vote, giving Lincoln the victory.

Independent expenditure spending does not always determine the winner of a Congressional race, but this spending can supplement a campaign enough to tip the scales in some races.

Outside funding helped tea party favorite Joe Miller unseat Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski. Even though Miller was outspent 7-to-1 by Murkowski’s campaign, outside groups spent 94 percent of their $565,000 to help him pull out a narrow victory for the Republican Senate nomination.

“When we get involved, we could make a difference between winning and loosing,” said Sal Russo, chief strategist for the Tea Party Express, which was the source of nearly all of Miller’s outside money.

This election cycle, the Tea Party Express, through its Our Country Deserves Better political action committee, has come out of nowhere to become the fourth-largest source of independent expenditures with $2.7 million.

“Whether it is Sharron Angle in Nevada, Joe Miller or getting Bart Stupak to quit in Michigan,” Russo said, “I think those are all places where we have made the difference.”

Other Senate contests leading in independent expenditures so far during the 2010 election cycle include:

• Massachusetts, where more than two-thirds of the $2.7 million spent favored Democrat Martha Coakley, but she lost to Republican Scott Brown in January;

• Nevada, where virtually all of the $1.7 million spent has supported Republican candidate Sharron Angle or gone against Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid;

• Missouri, where 90 percent of the $1 million spent favored Democrat Robin Carnahan, who is running against Rep. Roy Blunt during the fall.

A contentious primary season and recent special elections have also bolstered spending to affect the elections for House candidates. So far, outside groups spent $16.2 million on these contests — an increase of 11 percent over a similar period during the 2008 election.

The House races that have attracted the most money since January 2009 include:

• New York’s 23rd district, where nearly $3.5 million was spent by outside groups to influence who would replace Republican John McHugh, who resigned to become secretary of the Army. Ultimately, Democrat Bill Owens defeated Conservative Doug Hoffman in November 2009.

• New York’s 20th district, where 72 percent of nearly $2.5 million in independent expenditures were spent to try to elect Republican Jim Tedisco to a seat vacated by Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand. But Democrat Scott Murphy won the seat in April 2009.

• Pennsylvania’s 12th district, where outside groups spent more than $2.2 million to help determine who would succeed Democrat John Murtha after his death. The outside spending narrowly favored Democrat Mark Critz, who defeated Republican Tim Burns in May.

It is still early in the election season for independent expenditures, and such spending is expected to increase dramatically in upcoming weeks. At this point during the 2008 election cycle, groups had shelled out just one-tenth of the $152 million ultimately spent to affect Congressional races.

One of the key factors that could increase spending over the 2008 cycle is the Supreme Court’s ruling earlier this year in a case called Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, in which the court ruled that corporations, nonprofits and labor unions can use their own treasuries to fund political ads and influence federal elections.

“With the number of races in play and the amount of money that has been unleashed on the system by Citizens United,” Vance said, “it’s not going to slow down.”

Such spending does have to be reported to the FEC, but the means for disclosure remain murky until the agency issues final rules on the subject after the election.

Some of the organizations spending the most on independent expenditures so far during the 2010 election cycle are the Service Employees International Union, with more than $6.4 million, and the AFL-CIO, with nearly $3.7 million.

As expected, party committees also have played a large role in these elections. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has spent more than $2.8 million, while the National Republican Congressional Committee has doled out nearly $2.7 million so far. Those numbers are fractions of what they will ultimately spend.