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Outside Groups Outspending Political Campaigns in Competitive Senate Races

November 1, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
For the 2012 elections, Democrats and Republicans are focused on taking control of the Senate by winning a majority of seats. Jeffrey Brown talks to NPR's Tamara Keith, who breaks down the money -- millions of dollars -- being poured into competitive Senate races by political parties and, significantly, by outside groups.

JEFFREY BROWN: And we turn from presidential politics to two looks at the battle for control of the Senate.

The NewsHour and NPR have partnered with Kantar Media/CMAG to examine television advertising spending this campaign season. The final part of the project looked at competitive Senate contests.

Among the most expensive races, in Ohio, the candidates, their parties and outside groups have spent more than $41 million to air 62,000 spots.

In Massachusetts, the total is $38 million on more than 50,000 spots, with little outside spending.

In Virginia, $37.5 million dollars have been used to air nearly 44,000 ads.

In Connecticut, more than $32 million has been spent on 19,000 ads.

And in Wisconsin, there’s been nearly $30 million on almost 66,000 spots.

Tamara Keith has taken a close look at the data. She joins us now.

And you have taken a close look at all of those thousands of ads, too, right?

TAMARA KEITH, NPR: Or maybe just the top ones.

JEFFREY BROWN: Just a few of them.

TAMARA KEITH: The most popular hits.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, those sound like really big numbers, thousands and thousands of ads, lots of millions of dollars. Is it? How does it compare to the past?

TAMARA KEITH: It is definitely bigger than in the past.

These outside groups have been freed up by some recent legal cases to spend significantly more money or to receive significantly more money. Much of it has far less disclosure than in the past. And they are just all in. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is celebrating their 100th year in business. And they said that this year they are going to be bigger, bolder, more aggressive than ever before. And that’s absolutely what they’re doing. They’re in 15 Senate races.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, this is one of the places where you see the changes this campaign season, is in the advertising, in the dollars.

TAMARA KEITH: Absolutely. There is just so much money involved.

We were all stranded — many of us were stranded at home in the Washington, D.C., media market on Monday during the hurricane, and saw a lot of these ads in the Virginia race.

JEFFREY BROWN: For Virginia, yes.

TAMARA KEITH: And it was just nonstop, the ads, just left, right, left, right, and beating each other up, many of them funded by these outside groups and not the candidates themselves.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, well, let’s focus on one case where that is the case, Ohio, which of course getting lots of attention this campaign cycle.

Tell us what you see there in terms of the campaigns vs. the outside groups.

TAMARA KEITH: Well, the — especially on the Republican side, the outside groups are a huge factor.

The Republican candidate, Josh Mandel, has been outspent about 3-1 by the outside groups in support of him. And so he’s been hugely helped by these groups.

Sherrod Brown, obviously, as the incumbent, had the incumbent’s advantage in terms of the money that he has available to spend, but he’s also getting a lot of help from outside groups.

They are flooded there in Ohio. And the sort of remarkable thing is that Ohio is also this big presidential state. So, it’s not like the airwaves are free and clear.


TAMARA KEITH: And so they’re having to spend a ton of money. These aren’t cheap media markets, and they’re especially not cheap in a presidential cycle. So, it’s big.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, when we’re talking about outside groups, who do we mean? Who are you talking about? Give us some examples of who, and where’s the money coming from?

TAMARA KEITH: Now, that…

JEFFREY BROWN: Those are two different questions.

TAMARA KEITH: Those are definitely two different questions.

JEFFREY BROWN: Let’s start with the first one. Who are the outside groups?

TAMARA KEITH: Who are the outside groups?

The biggest one is Crossroads GPS. That’s the group founded by Karl Rove. Behind them in terms of total dollars of the numbers that we crunched is Majority PAC, which is a Democratic group. Coming after that, we have got the Club for Growth and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has spent a ton of money.

And now the second question…

JEFFREY BROWN: The harder part.

TAMARA KEITH: Where it comes from.


TAMARA KEITH: So, we know from — that Majority PAC is a Democratic group and their donors are known.

However, the Republican spending, Crossroads GPS, the Chamber of Commerce, those two groups, who have spent huge amounts of money on television advertising, we don’t know who their donors are because they are the types of groups that don’t have to disclose their donors.

And they absolutely don’t want to disclose their donors. That was part of the deal in getting the money from these folks.

Democrats will say it’s 12 billionaires somewhere in America who are shoving money over. There’s no way to actually know, unless someone admits it. And thus far, there hasn’t been a lot of that.

JEFFREY BROWN: Of course, they will say, we’re playing by the rules.

TAMARA KEITH: Absolutely. Those are the rules. It’s the law.

They are allowed to do that. Unless — until the law changes, they are well within their legal rights to do it.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, where else? What other Senate races do you see — well, just stay with the outside spending playing a big role. Where do you see that?

TAMARA KEITH: Well, one state where it’s sort of reversed is in Indiana, where the Democratic candidate has been getting more of a benefit.

He’s — in that state, Joe Donnelly has actually spent less of his own money on ads than the outside Democratic groups. So that’s another big one.

And, Virginia, it is huge. And I have been told by people who watch these things closely, and sort of the people who watch who’s up and who’s down, that it’s made a significant difference in Virginia.

The Republican candidate, George Allen, has been vastly outspent. I think he’s spent about $3 million on ads. The outside groups have spent I think about $14 million on ads. And that has allowed him to compete blow for blow with Tim Kaine.

JEFFREY BROWN: And the interesting other case is Massachusetts, lots of money, tons of money, but not from outside, right?


The two candidates, Scott Brown and Elizabeth Warren, agreed very early on that they weren’t going to have outside money in their race. They weren’t going to support it.

There’s been a little outside money, but, largely speaking, these are two candidates who have raised so much money, and they’re just going at each other a lot.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, finally, of course, we’re talking money, we’re talking numbers.


JEFFREY BROWN: But the content is largely negative.

TAMARA KEITH: Oh, overwhelmingly negative.

JEFFREY BROWN: You say that with a nice smile. That’s nice.


TAMARA KEITH: Well, you know, it’s very negative. It is very negative.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Tamara Keith from NPR, thanks so much.

TAMARA KEITH: Thank you.