Deep-pocketed, out-of-state groups spending millions in Missouri's senate race
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Deep-pocketed, out-of-state groups spending millions in Missouri's senate race

Date: November 8, 2010
By: Joe Yerardi
State Capitol Bureau
Links: The Sunlight Foundation

JEFFERSON CITY - "C00487363." Those nine characters formed one of the most feared markers in this year's midterm elections. They are the Federal Election Commission's identification number for American Crossroads. The group, co-founded by Karl Rove, former President Bush's chief political operative, and Ed Gillespie, the former chairman of the Republican National Committee, spent more than $21 million on ads attacking Democratic candidates across the nation this election season.

And those nine digits appeared in a lot of FEC reports on the U.S. Senate race in Missouri over its final two months.

The group spent nearly $2.7 million into the race to replace retiring U.S. Senator Kit Bond. That's in addition to the $1.1 million spent by a sister group, Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies. Crossroads GPS is noteworthy in that it operates under a section of the tax code that allows the group to keep the names of its donors secret --an option the organization has exercised.

The groups' combined $3.8 million in independent expenditures in the Missouri race stands as the largest pro-Republican investment in the race, which Blunt won handily.

Independent expenditures are money spent to support or oppose a particular candidate by groups that do not coordinate their activities with those candidates.

The numbers come courtesy of the Sunlight Foundation, an organization that tracks money in politics. The D.C.-based nonprofit analyzes FEC reports detailing the independent expenditures.

The group, founded in 2005 by Washington attorney Michael R. Klein,  has received major donations from the Rockefeller Family Fund and eBay founder Pierre Omidyar.

Paul Blumenthal, a senior writer with the Foundation, says the level of spending in this year's election was exceptional.

"In this election, we just saw an exponential explosion of money spent by candidates and especially by outside organizations," Blumenthal said.

In total, interest groups invested independent expenditures totaling nearly $11.7 million in Missouri's Senate race. That makes the Missouri contest the sixth-highest race for independent expenditures in the nation.

It wasn't always this way. In fact, up until recently, there were strict limits on how much money two major sources of campaign cash, corporations and unions, could spend on political campaigns through independent expenditures.

That changed in January of this year, when the Supreme Court struck down as unconstitutional most limits on campaign spending by corporations and unions, allowing those groups to spend unlimited money advocating for and against political candidates.

"What Citizens United [the court decision] does is allow organizations--corporations, unions and the like--to spend money out of their general treasury for political purposes," explained Political Science Prof. Marvin Overby at the University of Missouri.

To the decision's supporters, the ruling is a win for freedom of speech. To its detractors, it's a blow against clean elections. What all sides agree on is that the ruling will mean more outside money in politics than ever before.

Neither the campaigns of Blunt or Democrat Robin Carnahan responded to pre-election requests for comment on their candidates' positions on independent expenditures.

In Missouri -- and nationally -- most of that money came from pro-Republican groups.

Of the $11.7 million in Missouri's race, $6.8 million went to support Blunt and attack Carnahan while $4.9 million was spent to back the Democrat and oppose the Republican.  The environmental group, The League of Conservation Voters, was Carnahan's biggest spender with $723,219.81.

What both sides had in common is that the majority of the spending was negative, aimed at defeating one or the other candidate. A little over $9.4 million -- about 80 percent of the total independent expenditures in the race -- was dedicated to the defeat of one of the candidates.

American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS skewed even more heavily negative, with about 90 percent of the groups' spending identified as having opposed Carnahan.

Jonathan Collegio, a spokesman for the Crossroads organizations, said the reliance on negative advertising stems from campaign regulations.

"The campaign laws make it very difficult for outside organizations to run positive ads because we're unable to coordinate in any way with candidates or candidate committees," Collegio said, citing the prohibition of third-party groups from using video provided by the campaigns in advertisements as an example.

Blumenthal has a different theory.

"Candidates normally don't want to be the ones to put their names to negative advertisements and the more outside spending you have, the more opportunity for a faceless organization to take the heat for the negative advertising," Blumenthal said. "It's a lot easier for an outside organization to run negative ads. They don't have to face any negative consequences."

Tony Massaro, senior vice president of political affairs for The League of Conservation Voters, said they're distinguished from groups like American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS in that they do not accepted unlimited donations and do not conceal their donors.

That's true, but their sister group, the League of Conservation Voters Victory Fund, did raise and spend money in Missouri. Massaro says the group must do so in order to compete.

That group spent $28,544.74 in support of Carnahan and close to $800,000 nationally in support of Democrats and against Republicans   Unlike the other organization, the Victory Fund did not impose a limit on how much any one person could contribute to the fund.

"We're at a big enough disadvantage to the corporate interests that are vastly outspending us to then not avail ourselves of all the legal opportunities there are out there," Massaro said. "You have to operate under the rules as they exist, not in the world you wish would exist."

While Blunt won both the election and the money race, Overby says the efficacy of all this spending is much-debated, since money and success tend to follow each other in politics.

"Candidates are going to get more money as they get more competitive, which in turn makes them more competitive," Overby said. "Depending on your viewpoint, it's either a vicious or virtuous circle."