WASHINGTON, Oct. 10, 2010 -- Outspent and quite possibly outflanked on the money front, Democrats are closing out the campaign for control of Congress with the political equivalent of working the refs.
President Obama is leading a chorus of top Democrats in complaining of the influence of undisclosed and unregulated donations on campaigns, via independent groups that are running "issue" advertisements designed to sway voters for or against particular candidates.
The White House and the Democratic National Committee have seized on reports that the Chamber of Commerce may be using dollars from foreign sources to fund aggressive anti-Democratic ads -- even without specific proof of illegality or impropriety.
"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," the president said Thursday at a rally in Maryland.
The effort to highlight the influence of outside groups -- and take the fight in particular to GOP campaign guru Karl Rove, who helped form one of the biggest such groups this year -- comes as Democrats in races across the nation find themselves swamped by outside spending.
According to some estimates, Democrats are being outspent by an 8-1 margin this year, reversing a financial advantage Democrats and their allies in the labor movement enjoyed in 2008. Much of that spending was made possible by the Citizens United court ruling Democrats have long decried.
"They are becoming the central actors in this campaign," Obama's 2008 campaign manager, David Plouffe, told reporters in a briefing on the midterm elections last week.
A more effective tool for rebutting the messaging might come in the form of independent expenditures by groups on the left.
But the enthusiasm gap has a real impact in political donations as well as motivations. Democrats are therefore spending more time complaining about the rules in the campaign's final weeks, rather than attempting to play by the new ones.
Meanwhile, Democrats who have fretted over a map that has seemed to expand all year are now able to focus on a narrower set of races, at least when it comes to the Senate.
According to ABC's political unit, Republicans go into the campaign's final stretch with advantages in five races for seats now held by Democrats: North Dakota, Arkansas, Indiana, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.
That leaves eight races that appear likely to determine control of the Senate: Colorado, Illinois, Nevada, West Virginia, Connecticut, Washington, California and Delaware.
Republicans will need to win five of those states to take control of the Senate; they need a cleaner sweep if they lose the toss-up states where Republicans are now in control, in Kentucky and Missouri.
That's a difficult proposition, particularly as GOP chances have faded a bit in Delaware, Connecticut and California.
And Democrats are concentrating their base-rallying efforts on retaining seats now under their control.
First lady Michelle Obama makes her midterm campaign debut this week with visits to Wisconsin, Illinois and Colorado, and the president himself held a rally in Pennsylvania today, just days after a campaign swing into his home state of Illinois.
As for the House, Speaker Nancy Pelosi's optimism notwithstanding, Republicans remain in a strong position to take back control. The GOP needs to pick up 39 seats to win control, and almost all of the seats that are in serious contention on the ballot next month are currently held by Democrats.