Outside groups such as Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS are pumping millions of dollars into U.S. Senate races including Ohio’s, raising complaints among Democrats that independent, secretive PACs are distorting the election process with a seemingly unlimited flow of money from groups that do not have to disclose their donors.
On paper, Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown would appear to have the clear fundraising lead in his race against Republican Josh Mandel. But it’s difficult to make an accurate comparison because of the millions being pumped into the race by groups that do not have to live by the same rules other campaign contributors must follow.
At least $11 million has been spent against Brown by so-called social welfare nonprofits, known as 501c’s because of their IRS tax designation, according to amounts released by the groups. These organizations are also exempt from donor and spending limits and Federal Election Commission filings because they say supporting or opposing candidates is not their primary activity.
As a result, it is not clear who is bankrolling the ad campaign against Brown.
To the average voter, a negative ad is a negative ad. But the rules vary among groups that sponsor ads: candidate committees, PACs unaffiliated with candidates or nonprofit organizations. With only some groups reporting their spending, the FEC filings do not provide a clear picture of the money in a high profile race like the Brown-Mandel contest.
Candidates and traditional political action committees or PACs must file reports listing donors and expenditures with the FEC. Brown has a clear edge in those reports, which show the outside groups that file with the FEC have spent more than $2.3 million against Mandel but only about $22,000 against Brown.
The FEC records also show Brown has raised more money — $15.3 million to Mandel’s $9.9 million — and boasts a larger war chest — $6.49 million to Mandel’s $4.9 million. Those numbers led Mandel to speculate at a campaign event last month he’ll be outspent by Brown, a claim that provoked the Ohio Democratic Party to publicly bemoan outside money.
When the $11 million in targeted anti-Brown ads are factored in, the money race is more even.
Earlier this month, Crossroads GPS announced a $2.5 million ad buy in Ohio, Montana and Virginia. The group’s stated purpose for the ads is to urge “action to fight wasteful spending, government debt and ObamaCare,” but each ad negatively features the Democratic candidate in Senate races considered winnable by the GOP.
More than 100 of these nonprofits spent about $95 million compared to $65 million by PACs by in 2010, according to an analysis by the Center for Public Integrity and the Center for Responsive Politics. Only about $8 million of spending by nonprofits came from groups that partially revealed their donors.
The U.S. Supreme Court lifted the cloud of uncertainty hanging over these groups when it ruled in 2010 that expenditures by Citizens United and other nonprofits are protected by the First Amendment. Prior to the 2012 election cycle, ads by these groups could not mention a candidate for office within 30 days of a primary or 60 days of a general election.
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission alleging “social welfare-focused” groups raise and spend money for political purposes.
Bob Biersack, a senior fellow with the Center for Responsive Politics, said the influx of non-profit spending is a horrible problem similar to how so-called soft money was traded without transparency in the mid-2000s.
“People should be able to make their own judgments, but they should do it with enough information to know who’s behind these groups,” Biersack said.
Some nonprofits announce their spending, but the only way to find out who buys what airtime is to request public records kept at broadcast stations. Both campaigns hired a media buyer to track the information — not an option for the average voter.
Mandel’s cause has been helped by nearly $4 million from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, $2.5 million from the 60 Plus Association, which bills itself as the conservative alternative to AARP, $1.2 million from conservative advocacy group American Commitment, the new ads from Crossroads GPS and a few hundred thousand from a handful of smaller groups.
None have to publicly disclose their donors.
Democrats admit outside money is helping their campaigns, but note that it comes from PACs that report donors monthly to the FEC.
MajorityPAC, the League of Conservation Voters and the Service Employees International Union have spent $2.3 million against Mandel, according to FEC filings. Big donors to MajorityPAC include Euclidean Capital LLC President James H. Simons, who has given $1.5 million this cycle, liberal activist George Soros and the American Federation of Teachers.
“Sherrod Brown’s allies clearly understand the electoral dangers he faces and they have stepped forward with deep pocketed expenditures on his behalf,” said Travis Considine, a spokesman for Mandel.
Considine has consistently declined to comment on outside spending favoring Mandel, noting candidates are not allowed to collaborate with outside groups.
Brown spokesman Justin Barasky said the outside money has made the race tighter but also forced Brown supporters work harder.
“There’s not a whole lot you can do to counter this kind of money other than try to disprove the ads and nearly every single one of these ads has been debunked,” Barasky said. “I can’t point to a single thing Mandel does himself to make the race tighter.”
Polls seem to indicate the outside money might be hurting candidates more than they help.
Brown’s disapproval ratings and Mandel’s unfavorable ratings increased at least 6 points each since the onslaught of negative “social welfare” ads this spring.
Despite the possible blow back, candidates and interested groups buy negative ads because they work, said Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute.
“The slight difference in approach doesn’t make a difference,” Brown said. “Whether it comes from a campaign or an allied Super PAC — it doesn’t make a difference to voters.”