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Independent Groups Fill Media Coffers

They have drawn plenty of criticism from campaign reformers, but outside groups — with Democrat-backers leading the way — continue to fund major political spending in the run-up to the midterm elections, much of which is going to local TV stations.

In nine key Senate races studied by the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU, there has been $72 million worth of independent expenditures to date,* compared to $97 million in the last Midterm (2010) for all 37 Senate races through election day.

North Carolina is leading the way with $14 million, followed by Kentucky with $12 million.

The biggest funder by far was the Democrat-supporting Senate Majority PAC at a whopping $21 million (Democrats currently hold the majority in the senate, but the nine "toss-up" races targeted for the spending could shift the balance to the Republicans). The Republican-leaning U.S. Chamber of Commerce came in a "distant" second at $4.7 million.

A little over half of the $72 million in independent spending (51%) is so-called "dark money" — from groups that do not have to fully disclose their sources — so Brennan says their total is probably larger.

The rise of so-called "dark money" has exploded since 2010, with spending levels up by a factor of 15.

Sources of funding for issue ads don't have to be reported to the Federal Election Commission, so Brennan suggests the ad totals would be higher if they included so-called "sham" issue ads that are "indistinguishable" from campaign ads. (For example, an ad might say: "Women deserve the right to choose; candidate Smith supports the right to choose. Support the right to choose.").

Brennan suggests that if such ad spending were included in North Carolina alone, the total would double to $28 million spent.

And of course, the independent spending is separate from the party and candidate coffers being emptied into the TV and radio ad biz. The Washington Post reported Monday that Senate Democrats' campaign arm had launched a $9.1 million ad buy in North Carolina just last week.

The Brennan prediction is that the current independent expenditure total is likely to "soar" as election day nears.

The Brennan analysis was based its choice of the nine Senate races based on those listed as "highly competitive 'toss-ups' by the Cook Political Report." Expenditure data came from Sunlight Foundation as of Aug. 11 with an assist from the Center for Responsive Politics. North Carolina spending included electioneering communications.** The balance of the spending was from independent expenditures (see below).

*According to the FEC: "An independent expenditure is an expenditure for a communication "expressly advocating the election or defeat of a clearly identified candidate that is not made in cooperation, consultation, or concert with, or at the request or suggestion of, a candidate, a candidate’s authorized committee, or their agents, or a political party or its agents."

** According to the FEC, electioneering communiations are "any broadcast, cable or satellite communication that fulfills each of the following conditions: The communication refers to a clearly identified federal candidate; The communication is publicly distributed by a television station, radio station, cable television system or satellite system for a fee; and The communication is distributed within 60 days prior to a general election or 30 days prior to a primary election to federal office."