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."
Generally, the spots are attack ads, but many feature cameos by the candidates themselves.
Donnelly's latest spot features him standing in the middle of a country road while an actor playing Mourdock yells at him: "Hey, Donnelly! It's my way or the highway!" The Mourdock camp hit back with its own country-road spot, featuring a car being driven by Donnelly taking a hard left at the end of the road before veering through the mud.
In the more rural Montana, where Democrats and Republicans each reserved roughly $3 million in airtime, the National Republican Senatorial Committee has attacked incumbent Democratic Sen. Jon Tester for opposing the repeal of federal inheritance taxes. Democrats and their allies have opted for a more populist attack against Republican candidate Denny Rehberg, attacking his comment last year about lobbying being "an honorable profession."
In addition to money from big outside groups like Crossroads and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, buys are being made by lesser-known groups like the 60 Plus Association, a conservative alternative to the AARP, and Majority PAC, Senate Democrats' super PAC.
Democratic super PACs have been outspent by Republican-aligned groups roughly 2-to-1. Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesman Matt Canter argues his side has kept pace largely because Republican support groups are running outdated messages they used to corral tea party voters in 2010.
"Republicans continue to use the 2010 playbook that elected this tea party Congress and voters are sick and tired of the false partisan attacks," he said. Canter cites $20 million spent by Republican groups in Ohio and $17 million in Florida, then points to polls showing incumbent Democratic senators poised for re-election in those states.
But it's in states like Indiana — where outside spending has already well surpassed the $5.6 million spent in Indiana's 2010 Senate race that Republican Dan Coats won against former Rep. Brad Ellsworth — that the wash of money has been most surprising.
For example, Crossroads latest $4 million investment not only targets Florida and Virginia, but North Dakota and Montana.
Jason Miller, executive vice president of Jamestown Associates, which is writing ads for four Senate campaigns, including Mourdock's and Republican Linda Lingle's in Hawaii, said outside spending has made it more important for candidates to stick to their message.
"At the end of the day you still have to worry about playing your own game," he said.
Associated Press writer Kevin Freking contributed to this report from Washington.