Oil and gas industry services and investors have contributed $415,000 from their company coffers to fund a group blasting Democratic Senate candidates in four states with attack ads.
A North Carolina pharmaceutical executive has spent $3.3 million of his personal wealth to spearhead another group that has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on mailings to influence Senate races in nine states.
Labor unions and Las Vegas resorts are largely funding a group that has focused on attacking Republican challengers to Democratic Senate Majority leader Harry Reid's seat.
The three groups -- First Amendment Alliance, Rightchange.com and Patriot Majority -- are among more than 230 independent groups that have poured $227 million into the 2010 elections so far, according to federal election data available through the Sunlight Foundation Reporting Group, an organization that tracks campaign spending. Of the total that can be tracked, some $103 million has been spent to support Republican or oppose Democrats, while $67 million has gone toward supporting Democrats or opposing Republicans.
Campaign finance watchdog groups say the flood of money reflects an altered election spending landscape following a series of Supreme Court decisions that have cleared the way for independent groups to raise unlimited amounts of money from corporations, unions, and individuals to directly fund ads, mailings and other messaging expressly supporting or opposing federal candidates in the final days running up to an election. The interests backing the groups are not always apparent to voters, and often the donors remain secret.
"We're talking about a new kind of spending," said Taylor Lincoln of Public Citizen, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group that follows campaign spending. "There are probably a lot of corporate spenders out there that, for fear for their reputation and a sense of what was right and the law of the land, didn't want to play that game. Now they don't have to fear any kind of legal retribution. That's a big deal."
The First Amendment Alliance, funded largely by oil and gas interests, is one of the groups ramping up fundraising and spending this election cycle. In 2008, the group spent $120,000 on radio ads, and raised most of its money from three donors, according to filings.
This year, the Alliance has raised $1.4 million, with at least $1.1 million of those receipts coming from the oil and gas interests, according to an ABC News analysis of the group's filings to the IRS. More than a third of the industry cash has come directly from businesses, while the remaining contributions have come from individual contributions from industry executives and investors.
Among the Alliance's top donors are two private corporations, Odessa, Texas-based Aghorn Energy Inc and Denver-based Anschutz Corporation. In previous election cycles, the corporations had been constrained in making independent expenditures on ads that expressly advocated one candidate over another.
Top individual contributors include Texas rancher Russell Gordy, energy investor Jonathan Farber, and Texas homebuilder Bob Perry.