Ben Nelson doesn’t face reelection to the U.S. Senate until November 2012. Yet attacks on the Democrat began in January 2011 with a radio spot asking, “Can Nebraskans trust Ben Nelson?” Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill first saw billboards calling her a reckless spender this summer, even though Republicans won’t choose her opponent until next August. Same for Bill Nelson. The Florida senator was under siege for voting for “skyrocketing debt, the failed stimulus, and Obamacare” before he had hired a campaign manager.
We’re all used to political attack ads hijacking television the summer before an election. This year’s barrage started the summer before the summer before the election, and in some cases well before that. The quaint old election calendar, which candidates and their party allies follow through the primaries and into the general election, no longer sets the campaign season’s schedule. Instead, rich donors and independent groups now run their own parallel campaigns at an accelerated pace, in an effort to get a jump on influencing the issues and outcomes. The early ad blitz suggests that such outside spending could rival fundraising by candidates and parties, says Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California at Los Angeles. “That means the candidates’ voices, particularly in campaigns for Congress, are going to be drowned out.”
Outside groups reported to the Federal Election Commission that they spent $305 million in the 2010 election, up fourfold from 2006, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks campaign spending. That number is expected to surge during the Presidential race, thanks in part to last year’s Citizens United Supreme Court ruling allowing corporations and unions to put unlimited funds into independent groups such as Super PACs, money that can be used to support or attack candidates all the way up to Election Day. The “Truth About Claire” billboards targeting McCaskill are the product of a Super PAC known as American Crossroads. Founded by Karl Rove, the group has already reported spending $64,098 to attack the senator.
In reality, we’ll never know the total amount outside groups spend—even after the polls close in 2012. That’s because many of the ads don’t count as political spending under federal rules. Take the January “Can you trust Ben Nelson?” radio spot criticizing the senator’s vote for President Barack Obama’s health-care law. It was paid for by the American Future Fund, a free-market group in Iowa. Or the TV ad essentially blaming Nelson for the country’s swelling debt, which ran during this summer’s budget negotiations and was paid for by another operation that Rove founded, Crossroads GPS. Both groups are considered “social welfare organizations” under federal tax laws. As long as their messages don’t explicitly urge a vote for or against a candidate and air more than 60 days before a general election, the groups don’t have to report what they spent to influence a race.
Some independent groups have formed multiple entities that are subject to different disclosure requirements, giving donors the option to publicize their gift or keep it under wraps. The American Crossroads Super PAC, for instance, must regularly report its donors’ names and expenses to the FEC. Donors desiring anonymity can give instead to the same group’s Crossroads GPS because “social welfare” groups never have to identify their funders. So, while McCaskill will eventually learn who funded the “Truth About Claire” campaign, Bill Nelson may never know who paid to attack him in 2011. Crossroads spokesman Jonathan Collegio says its ads educate the public about important policy issues.
Liberal groups such as Americans United for Change have also launched early offensives, but the GOP-friendly committees are putting up the most money so far, says Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics. The two Crossroads groups alone are planning to amass $240 million by November 2012. With so many months to go, there’s no telling which side will ultimately outspend the other. Nebraska’s Nelson says candidates have to brace for anonymous assaults from all sides, whether the feds police the early shadow campaigns or not. “It’s the new system, and you have to accept that that’s what it is.”