Republican-leaning groups outspent the two political parties combined during September’s first four weeks in a bid to sway the U.S. congressional elections, Federal Election Commission reports show.
The groups -- including Crossroads GPS, advised by Republican strategist Karl Rove, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce -- spent more than $33 million, mainly on advertising. That compares with just under $20 million spent by the Republican and Democratic committees charged with electing their party’s candidates.
Outside organizations are focusing most of their fire on Senate races, particularly in California, Colorado, Florida, Missouri, Nevada and Pennsylvania, their reports to the FEC show. Many of the groups are registered as nonprofits that don’t have to disclose their donors, drawing protest from Democrats including President Barack Obama and Montana Senator Max Baucus.
“Republican operatives in the shadows are clearly winning the hidden money game,” said Linda Fowler, a government professor at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire.
Obama has used two of his recent weekly addresses to blast Republicans for blocking legislation that would make groups engaged in political activity report their contributions. Baucus, the Senate Finance Committee chairman, today asked Internal Revenue Service Commissioner Doug Shulman to investigate the organizations.
“Political campaigns and powerful individuals should not be able to use tax-exempt organizations as political pawns to serve their own special interests,” Baucus said in a statement released by his office. He said his committee may hold hearings or draft legislation in response to what the IRS finds.
As a trade group, the chamber doesn’t have to disclose its donors even though it is publicly playing a major role in the campaign, with plans to spend $75 million. Crossroads GPS says it engages in issue advocacy and grassroots lobbying. Neither of the Washington-based groups has to register with the FEC, though they do have to report some political activity.
The chamber has spent about $4 million on ads targeting Democratic Senators Barbara Boxer in California and Michael Bennet in Colorado, among others. Crossroads GPS yesterday reported spending almost $1.2 million on television ads to oppose Democratic candidates Robin Carnahan in Missouri and Joe Sestak in Pennsylvania and Senator Patty Murray in Washington.
Some of the groups “seem to be testing the limits of what they can do, so pushback was inevitable,” Fowler said.
Still, Baucus’s request may not result in any action. Since the IRS is first and foremost concerned with tax evasion, any look at these groups may have to wait until long after the Nov. 2 elections are over, said Paul Ryan, associate legal counsel with the Campaign Legal Center, a Washington watchdog group.
Many of the groups “will be gone by then,” Ryan said. “They were created this year and they will be dissolved after the election.”
The groups themselves say they are acting legally.
“We comply with all rules and regulations,” said chamber spokesman J.P. Fielder. “The chamber has been and will continue to be engaged in the issue debate.”
Baucus may be trying to score political points even if he doesn’t succeed in changing the campaign’s landscape, said David Primo, a political science professor at the University of Rochester in New York.
“This strikes me as an election-season stunt to create the appearance that these groups are acting in an illegal way,” Primo said.
The outside spending is making up for a $20 million cash advantage the three main Democratic Party fundraising committees had over their Republican counterparts heading into September. In the first four weeks of September, the Democratic committees spent more than $11 million, compared with $8.2 million by their Republican Party rivals.
Democratic-leaning outside groups spent less than $6 million in that same time period.
Some of the Republican-leaning groups have focused more on House races. Americans for Job Security, an Alexandria, Virginia-based group that says it promotes free markets and “pro-paycheck public policy,” has reported spending about $4 million in House districts in Indiana, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia.
“Our primary purpose is still issue advocacy,” said Stephen DeMaura, the group’s president, in an interview. “Our goal is to talk about issues, whether through issue advocacy or electioneering communications or independent expenditures.”
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