Election 2010's battle over campaign dollars

So far, the GOP has a considerable edge. Its benefactors are writing checks like there’s no tomorrow, allowing the party to fund campaign ads in states once thought safe for Democrats.

Jacquelyn Martin/AP
President Barack Obama attends a campaign rally for Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, second from right Thursday at Bowie State University in Bowie, Md. At right is Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md. At left is Maryland Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown.

With little more than three weeks until the midterm elections, Democrats and Republicans are in a ferocious fight over the most important issue in the campaign: money.

Not taxes or deficits or bailouts, but the cash pouring in to both parties and being doled out to candidates around the country.

So far, the GOP has a considerable edge. It’s corporate and conservative interest group benefactors are writing checks like there’s no tomorrow, allowing the party to fund campaign ads in many more races than might otherwise have been the case – including those once thought safe for Democrats.

Analyzing reported spending, the Washington Post finds that Republicans have spent at least $100,000 in 77 different congressional races (nearly twice the number of seats they need to gain control of the House), compared with 43 races in which Democrats have spent that much.

Looked at across regions of the country, Republicans and their supporters are outspending their Democratic counterparts by 53 percent, the newspaper reports: $74.6 million to $39.7 million, based on Federal Election Commission filings. At the same time, millionaire and billionaire candidates – Republicans Meg Whitman, Carly Fiorina, and Linda McMahon among them – are digging into their personal pocketbooks to battle their opponents on the airwaves.

Democrats, meanwhile, are scrambling to catch up – in some cases performing a sort of political triage as they cut back on ad buys in some races.

“The party strongly denies it's abandoning these candidates, some of whom are benefiting from Democratic-leaning outside groups that are spending on their behalf,” the Associated Press reports. “But the shifting of resources – along with analysis of the parties' spending and interviews with Republican and Democratic strategists – paints a clear picture of the damage-control effort.”

As of mid-September, an estimated $220 million had been spent on political ads for Congress, some 61 percent more than had been spent in 2008, reports the Wesleyan Media Project, a nonpartisan group of academic experts who track political ads.

“The airwaves are being saturated with more House and Senate advertising, up 20 percent and 79 percent respectively in total airings,” the group reported recently. “The increase in spending is driven primarily by a surge in spending on US Senate seats, which more than doubled compared to 2008. House spending is similar to 2008 due to increased airings in cheaper markets.”

Of the top ten interest group spenders by volume and ad count, seven lean Republican, according the Wesleyan Media Project. Topping the list is the Republican Governors Association; number three is the US Chamber of Commerce.

Recently, the US Chamber has had to fight back charges that its campaign spending includes foreign donations, which would be illegal under US law.

So far, the charges, brought by liberal groups, have yet to be proved. For one thing, interest groups like the US Chamber are not required to report in detail their financial contributors.

Democrats from President Obama on down are trying to make a big deal out of this.

"Groups that receive foreign money are spending huge sums to influence American elections — and they won't tell you where the money for those ads comes from," Obama said at a rally in Bowie, Maryland, Thursday. "So this isn't just a threat to Democrats. This is a threat to our democracy."

Over the next several days, Obama will make campaign appearances in Philadelphia, Chicago, and Coral Gables, Fla.

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