Outside money fills airwaves in tight Senate races

By Tom Lobianco

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, Oct. 3 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

FILE - In this Sept. 26, 2012, file photo, Indiana Democratic Senate candidate Joe Donnelly answers questions during an interview with the Associated Press in Indianapolis. Campaign cash from outside political groups is flooding into conservative states with close Senate races like Indiana and Montana, where residents are less accustomed to a relentless barrage of attack ads on TV.

Michael Conroy, File, Associated Press

INDIANAPOLIS — Campaign cash from outside political groups is flooding into conservative states with close Senate races like Indiana, Arizona and Montana, where residents are more accustomed to local news promos between football games than the relentless, often snarky attack ads.

Crossroads GPS, by far the biggest spender of any super PAC this cycle, barraged TV viewers in Indiana last week with a $1 million ad buy attacking Indiana Democratic Senate candidate Joe Donnelly for supporting the new health care law and the $831 billion economic stimulus package.

Super PACs aligned with Democrats and public employee unions returned the favor this week with their own $1 million buy in the state, accusing Republican Richard Mourdock of threatening auto worker jobs when he fought the federal bailout of Chrysler in 2009.

For better or worse, the deluge has boosted Mourdock's name recognition.

"When I walk down Meridian Street, people either give me an 'attaboy' or the finger," Mourdock said of his experiences lately on Indianapolis's main thoroughfare.

It is still unclear whether the roughly $150 million spent by Republican-aligned and Democratic-aligned groups in the nation's dozen or so tight Senate races has actually swayed the public one way or another. Despite a 2-1 outside spending advantage, the GOP's chances of flipping the three or four seats needed for control of the Senate have shrunk in the last few months.

The most expensive Senate battles are being fought in presidential battlegrounds like Florida ($19 million in outside spending), Ohio ($26 million) and Virginia ($21 million). But Democrats have matched Republican groups across the vast expanses of Republican-leaning states like Montana, North Dakota and Indiana, where a half million dollars will buy much more airtime than in places like Miami or Washington, D.C.

"Everybody is trying to figure out where they can get the most bang for their buck," said Darrell West, an expert in campaign finance at the Washington-based Brookings Institution. "So they look at the poll numbers and the size of the market, and they invest accordingly."

Arizona voters are starting to get a glimpse of the role outside groups are playing in this fall's elections. Last week, a Democratic super PAC, the Majority PAC, helped finance ads that attacked Republican Jeff Flake as someone who voted for the war in Iraq but voted against certain benefits for returning troops.

In turn, the anti-tax group Club for Growth announced Tuesday that it would be spending $500,000 in Arizona and Indiana on television ads making the case that electing the Democratic candidates in those states is tantamount to a "U.S. Senate controlled by liberals."

The ad barrage is the reality of elections shaped by the rise of super PACs, which can raise and spend money almost indiscriminately. Propelling the rush are different groups working under separate laws for giving, and they can be surprisingly nimble. Republican and Democratic campaign committees, as well as the Senate campaigns themselves, are joining the ad blitz.

For example, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee also aired its first ad in Arizona this week, criticizing Flake for supporting legislation that lets health plans opt out of covering certain health services based on religious reasons and for voting to cut funding to Planned Parenthood. The pitch, costing $526,000 for now, is directed at female voters.

For groups prohibited by law from coordinating, what they produce is surprisingly nimble and complementary. They also respond to opponents with lightning-fast speed, before increasingly large audiences.

Where the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee decided to extend its presence on air in Indiana by two weeks, Crossroads spent $600,000 over the summer, disappeared, and then returned with a $1 million blast. According to FEC documents, those ads have increasingly migrated from cheaper slots between local newscasts to more expensive slots during Sunday football and prime-time crime dramas like "CSI" and "NCIS."

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