Independent groups up spending

WASHINGTON -- Spending by independent political groups in congressional races is surging in the final weeks before Election Day, in some cases surpassing what candidates themselves are pumping into close contests.

Since Sept. 1, nine groups have spent more than $1 million each in House and Senate races, including $11.3 million by an organization bankrolled by drug companies that is running ads featuring 26 members of Congress from both major parties.

Outside money is also pouring into the Colorado battle between Republican Rep. Marilyn Musgrave and Democrat Betsy Markey. The Defenders of Wildlife and others have pumped in nearly $2 million to defeat Musgrave, who spent less than $700,000 by July 1.

The environmental group plans to spend $500,000 this week on a TV ad criticizing Musgrave for accepting oil-industry contributions. She is a top target because of her votes opposing higher fuel-efficiency standards and other issues, said Rodger Schlickeisen president of the group's action fund.

The spending hurts Musgrave, said her campaign manager Jason Thielman. "She just held a fundraising coffee where 30 people donated about $75 each," he said. "But someone can just write a check for $1 million to run a campaign against her."

Independent groups have mushroomed since a 2002 law banned unlimited money in federal campaigns. This election, the groups can run issue ads mentioning a candidate by name right up until Nov. 4. Previously, such ads were banned 60 days before the general election.

"The public doesn't know who the people are behind some of these independent groups," said Steve Weissman of the non-partisan Campaign Finance Institute. "Yet the concentrated weight of their money can make a big difference in a close race."

Other examples:

• The National Association of Realtors' political action committee last week spent nearly $190,000 in mailings to help Rep. Paul Kanjorski, D-Pa., in his race against Republican Lou Barletta. Kanjorski is the No. 2 Democrat on the panel overseeing the industry.

Barletta spent about $102,000 on his entire campaign by July 1. Kanjorski "is not influenced by outside actors," spokesman Ed Mitchell said.

• Patriot Majority, a group bankrolled by labor unions, spent $550,000 Wednesday on a TV ad attacking Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, R-Fla. That's three times what the congressman spent on his race from April 1 to June 30.

• America's Agenda: Health Care for Kids spent $11.3 million on TV ads last month praising 26 senators and House members for supporting the State Children's Health Insurance Program. The drug industry's lobbying arm paid for the ads.

The Price of Power is an ongoing series tracking the role of money and business interests in politics.