Outside groups dominate 2010 campaign spending

Colorado’s Seventh Congressional District – a bellwether district in a swing state – leads the nation in spending on political ads by outside groups not required to disclose their donors.

Matt McClain/AP
U.S. Congressional candidates, Republican Ryan Frazier, left, and incumbent Democrat Ed Perlmutter argue over issues during a debate at KBDI television in Denver on Oct. 14, 2010.

A snarling dog rushes the front door, but GOP House challenger Ryan Frazier, campaigning house to house, is more concerned about defusing attack ads flooding the zone in the last hours of the 2010 race.

“I’m a military veteran, husband, and father of three; served five years on the city council; cofounded the High Point Academy,” he says. “And all those ads you’ve seen about me? None of them are true.”

Across town, incumbent Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D) has just won his fight to get an attack ad by an outside group – falsely charging that he favors giving Viagra to sex offenders – off the air. The ad was dropped, but it’s not clear whether voters were influenced by it.

RELATED: The 10 weirdest political ads of 2010

Colorado is off the charts in terms of outside ads and money,” he says, before heading out door-to-door himself. “The amount of money spent is pretty unbelievable, and the ads are consistently false. It’s made it a very difficult campaign.”

It’s a complaint heard by candidates on both sides of the aisle across the nation this year. But Colorado’s Seventh Congressional District – a bellwether district in a swing state – leads the nation in spending on political ads by “dark” outside groups, not required to disclose their donors.

Colorado is the No. 1 destination for outside groups spending campaign funds with undisclosed donors, according to a new report by the Sunlight Foundation. Total undisclosed outside spending for this House race alone is nearly $3.5 million – in a district with just 287,402 registered voters.

Overall, outside groups have spent a record $455 million this campaign cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics in Washington. As much as $110 million of that spending is undisclosed, affecting 168 congressional races, according to the Sunlight Foundation.

The surge in outside spending marks a “dramatic change in the spending patterns as outside organizations have collectively dwarfed the spending by Republican and Democratic party committees, which have most often taken the lead in independent spending,” concludes the Sunlight Foundation report, released Oct. 28.

Unrelenting attack ads

In the Denver market, the attack ads are unrelenting.

On CBS4 Denver, one 15-minute segment broadcast during sports coverage featured a battery of attack ads on both sides of three hotly contested House races, as well as a Senate race and governor’s race that are both heading down to the wire.

“All these ads say is what’s wrong with the other guy,” says Tammie Neyman, a dietician in Denver. “It gets you to a point where you just don’t want to [even] vote.”

Many outside conservative groups are pouring funds in unlimited amounts into issue ads that support Frazier or attack Representative Perlmutter. And left-leaning groups are doing the reverse.

In all, outside conservative groups have spent $35,108 funding ads supporting Frazier and $635,049 attacking Perlmutter. Unions and center-left groups have spent $810,326 supporting Perlmutter and $574,176 attacking Frazier, according to the Sunlight Foundation.

Frazier, campaigning in slightly frayed jeans and a well-cut jacket, is a “young gun” of the National Republican Congressional Committee – that is, a new face whom GOP House leaders have designated as someone with a good shot of winning, which could help Republicans take back the majority.

If elected, Frazier – and up to 13 other black Republicans in 2010 House races – would join a House Republican caucus that last had a black member in 2002.

Frazier has raised $1.5 million for his own race, but is scrambling to raise more to refute a $465,176 ad from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee charging that he favors outsourcing jobs.

It’s one of the most effective DCCC ads this cycle, premised on the view that any Republican who signed a pledge to not increase taxes must therefore oppose repealing a tax break for companies profiting from business overseas. Factcheck.org has dubbed these ads misleading and false.

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which has spent $10.6 million on political ads this cycle, poured $109,000 into radio ads attacking Frazier, who is committed to cutting government spending. It’s the group’s No. 2 top-funded House race.

A recent outside attack ad by the American Action Network, a conservative group that does not disclose donors, charges that Perlmutter’s vote for the health care reform bill means that he endorses Viagra for rapists.

Viagra for sex offenders??

In a bid to defeat the health care bill, Sen. Tom Coburn (R) of Oklahoma proposed an amendment to ban coverage of erectile dysfunction drugs for sex offenders. The amendment failed in the Senate, and was never voted in the House.

The ad is clearly false and it was subsequently withdrawn. But Perlmutter says he’s had to spend more time on the phone raising money to counter it instead of spending time with voters.

Unlike candidates or party organizations, outside groups organized as 527 or 501 (c) (4) groups under the US tax code, can solicit funds in unlimited amounts. The 2010 US Supreme Court decision, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, struck down a ban on political advocacy ads by corporations and unions.

But much of the outside spending in the 2010 campaign could have taken place even without that decision, using existing provisions in the tax code, says Rob Witwer, coauthor with Adam Schrager of “The Blueprint: How the Democrats Won Colorado.”

It’s a model that left-leaning groups prospected in the 2004 campaign cycle and later expanded nationwide.

“Republican organizations have internalized the lessons of Colorado,” says Witwer. “Instead of funding campaigns, they’re using a network of outside groups.”

RELATED: The 10 weirdest political ads of 2010

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