Outside political groups have spent $8.4 million in advertising in the final days before primaries or special elections this year, a USA TODAY analysis shows. More than 60 percent of the money comes from non-profits that do not have to identify their donors.
Americans for Job Security, a Virginia-based non-profit, has spent the most, pumping nearly $2.4 million into such ads this year, federal records show. The lion's share — $1.5 million — has flowed to Arkansas, where Sen. Blanche Lincoln and Lt. Gov. Bill Halter face off in a hotly contested Democratic primary runoff Tuesday.
The group, which describes itself as having a "pro-market, pro-paycheck message," has run controversial TV spots attacking Halter as acting against U.S. business interests by serving on the board of a company that the group claims outsourced jobs to India. As a non-profit, the group does not disclose its donors.
Halter, who called the ad an "outright fabrication," has complained to the Federal Election Commission. "Voters in Arkansas need to know who's coming in here to try and buy an election," he told USA TODAY.
So far, federal regulators have not taken action, and Americans for Job Security's president, Stephen DeMaura, said the group is within its rights to highlight Halter's record in its advertising.
"It's not uncommon for politicians to attack the messenger," said DeMaura, a former executive director of the New Hampshire Republican Party.
The spending comes as overall political advertising surges.
In all, candidates, political parties and outside groups spent $40 million on TV ads targeting federal races between Jan. 1 and the end of May, data compiled by Evan Tracey of the Campaign Media Analysis Group shows. That's a 60 percent increase over the $16 million spent on TV commercials during the same period in 2006, the last midterm election for Congress.
Campaign-finance watchdogs, such as Public Citizen's Craig Holman, say spending could jump even higher under a Supreme Court ruling in January that opened the door to unlimited corporate and union money for independent ads.
"Even though there are more TV ads hitting the airwaves, we don't know where the money is coming from in most cases," Holman said. "It's a disastrous trend we are running into as we head into the 2010 general election."
The analysis was drawn from reports outside groups file with the Federal Election Commission about their spending on broadcast ads that mention candidates within 30 days of a primary or 60 days of a general election.
All outside groups reported spending less than $500,000 on such ads for the first five months in 2006.
One factor in the spending increase, Tracey said, is a wave of competitive races this year, including the runoff in Arkansas and high-profile primaries Tuesday in Nevada and California.
"There are so many of these big-trophy races out there, the money is going where the attention is," he said.
Other non-profits spending heavily since January include:
• The American Future Fund, which advocates "conservative, free-market ideals," has spent nearly $1.1 million on ads in the final days before elections, records show. That includes more than $242,000 on ads against Rand Paul in the run-up to Kentucky's GOP primary last month. Paul won the race.
The fund also ran ads that aided Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass., in his January special election. "We attempt to go places where we can have the biggest impact," spokesman Nick Ryan said.
• The conservative Club for Growth, which spent about $182,000 to cast Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, as a big-spending career politician.
In a big upset, the three-term Bennett was tossed out of office by the delegates to the state GOP convention last month. "It's probably the best investment we have ever made in taking on an incumbent," said David Keating, the group's executive director.
The group has refused to disclose its donors to the Federal Election Commission, saying it does not solicit contributions specifically for political ads. "Groups are not required to turn their membership lists over to the government," Keating said.
• The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has spent $1.4 million on ads in the final days leading into elections, records show.
In Arkansas, more than half of all the spending on TV ads comes from outside groups, Tracey said. The AFL-CIO spent more than $3 million in last month's Democratic primary to help Halter.