Voters in Ohio listening to the radio last week likely heard an ad accusing Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown of joining President Barack Obama in waging a “war on coal.”
“Their war on coal is also a war on jobs, family utility bills and for far too many, a war on Ohioans’ way of life,” the announcer says and urges people to vote against Brown and Obama.
Then, more quickly and quietly, the announcer says the ad was “paid for by American Commitment.”
Listeners would have no indication what American Commitment is, and who is behind it. Brown’s campaign doesn’t know, either.
In an election-year awash in money coming from mysterious groups such as American Commitment, Ohio has become the epicenter of secret money and Brown the favored target. Outside groups have spent more than $26 million against him, both parties said. Of that, more than $20 million came from groups that hide the identities of their donors.
It’s an emblem of what has happened in the aftermath of court rulings that have paved the way for unions, corporations, and wealthy individuals to spend unlimited amounts of money on elections.
“This would not be a race if it were not for that $25 million,” Brown said in an interview. “It would not be on anybody’s map.”
Brown says he believes the ads are coming from banks, multinational corporations and oil companies.
“I can’t prove any of it, but Wall Street and the oil companies and the outsourcers and the banks don’t like me much,” he said.
Nationally, groups that aren’t affiliated with a campaign or party have already spent $727.7 million this election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Of that, groups that don’t disclose the identities of their donors spent $212.7 million. These figures capture only expenditures that are reported to the Federal Election Commission, which don’t include all television ads and voter-turnout operations.
Groups that don’t disclose their donors and worked on behalf of Brown and other Democrats include the League of Conservation Voters and MomsRising, an organization that advocates for equal pay and other women’s issues.
Outsiders working for Republicans and opposing Brown range from behemoths such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to obscure organizations such as the Government Integrity Fund. Their spending has leveled the playing field for Brown’s opponent, State Treasurer Josh Mandel.
Mandel, who has raised $14.5 million to Brown’s $20.5 million, trails the senator by 7 points in a Suffolk University poll. The Oct. 18-21 survey of 600 likely voters in Ohio has an error margin of 4 percentage points.
To uncover clues that may offer a glimpse at who is behind the outside spending requires searching through documents and connecting the political players -- and even those efforts can lead to dead-ends.
“A lot of these races have become arms races. It keeps ratcheting up,” said Lee Drutman, a senior fellow at the Sunlight Foundation, a Washington-based group that advocates for more disclosure. “The fact that we have no way of knowing where it’s coming from and what are the donors’ intentions is troubling for the state of our democracy.”
On the smaller end of the spending spectrum is the Government Integrity Fund, which has paid $1.09 million for ads in Ohio, and American Commitment, which spent $1.08 million and the Coalition to Protect Patients’ Rights, which has devoted $106,120.
All three groups were created as non-profit “social welfare” organizations. Under the Internal Revenue Service code they are permitted to engage in some political activity so long as the majority of its work is dedicated to advancing the public good through education or awareness about issues. It also allows them to keep the identities of their donors secret.
American Commitment is led by Phil Kerpen, the former vice president of Americans for Prosperity, a group founded and funded by billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, who control the energy conglomerate Koch Industries Inc.
On his website, Kerpen describes himself as a “free-market advocate.” He didn’t respond to e-mails or calls.
The Government Integrity Fund lists a post office box in Columbus as its address and has no names on its website. There is a blog by someone who goes by “Doc Willis,” although there is no indication that name applies to the real writer.
A TV ad buy contract from the public file of Hearst Television, posted on the investigative reporting group ProPublica’s website, lists Tom Norris at the group’s chairman and treasurer.
Norris is a Republican lobbyist and owner of the Columbus firm Cap Square Solutions. One of his employees is Joel Riter, who had been Mandel’s aide in the Ohio legislature, then worked on his campaign for treasurer. Mandel hired him as a lobbyist in the Treasurer’s office, where he stayed for only six months before leaving to join Cap Square, according to an ethics complaint filed against Mandel by Ohio Representative Matt Lundy, a Democrat.
The Government Integrity Fund spent an estimated $561,350 to run three TV ads 1,075 times from May 15 through Sept. 7, according to New York-based Kantar Media’s CMAG, which tracks advertising. Mandel’s campaign says the total spending by the group was $1.05 million.
The Coalition to Protect Patients’ Rights is led by Dr. Donald Palmisano, a former head of the American Medical Association. The group was created to fight Obama’s health-care overhaul law.
It got more than 10 percent of its funding in 2010 from another organization that doesn’t disclose its donors called the Center to Protect Patient Rights, a non-profit that contributed more than $53 million to political groups active in the 2010 midterm elections.
While none of these groups will say who is funding their campaigns against Brown, the ads share certain themes. Many criticize the Democrat for being hostile to coal mines and coal-fired power plants, while other slam his support for Obama’s Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.
The biggest spender in the race is Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies, a group tied to Republican political strategist Karl Rove, which has invested $11.2 million in the Ohio Senate race. The chamber follows with $7.9 million, according to Mandel’s campaign. Neither group discloses the sources of its funding.
Brown “claims to be pro-business but has continuously voted against the interests of job creators in the U.S. Senate,” said Blair Latoff, communications director at the U.S. Chamber.
She said the chamber endorses candidates whose voting records they deem to be 70 percent pro-business. Donors to the chamber’s political activities can’t earmark the money for specific candidates or causes, she said.
The chamber put out a new TV ad on Oct. 18 showing newspaper and magazine photos of Brown during his four decades in politics, while an announcer says, “Voted the most liberal senator two years in a row. A record of failure.”
On top of that, the Club for Growth’s political action committee said Oct. 19 it would spend $800,000 on ads against Brown in Columbus alone. The anti-tax group’s ads criticize Brown’s support for a “cap-and-trade energy tax” and “death tax.”
Brown has also benefited some from outside spending, although the totals are only about a fourth of what has been spent to help Mandel.
The Majority PAC, a political action committee that seeks to elect Democrats to the Senate and discloses its donors, has spent $1.7 million on television on Brown’s behalf in Ohio, according to CMAG. In total the group devoted $3.2 million to protecting Brown’s seat, according to Mandel’s campaign.
“No amount of special interest spending on Senator Brown’s behalf will change the fact that he voted for Wall Street bailouts, a failed taxpayer funded stimulus, and a government takeover of health care,” said Mandel spokesman Travis Considine.