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Columbia Missourian

Deep-pocketed groups spend millions in Missouri Senate race

By Joe Yerardi
November 9, 2010 | 5:37 p.m. CST

JEFFERSON CITY —  "C00487363."

Those nine characters represent one of the most feared markers in this year's midterm elections. It is the Federal Election Commission's identification number for American Crossroads.


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The group, co-founded by Karl Rove, former chief political operative for President Bush, and Ed Gillespie, former chairman of the Republican National Committee, spent more than $21 million on ads attacking Democratic candidates across the nation this election season.

The same nine digits appeared in a lot of commission reports on the U.S. Senate race in Missouri during its final two months.

The group spent nearly $2.7 million on the race to replace retiring U.S. Sen. Kit Bond. That's in addition to the $1.1 million spent by a sister group, Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies.

Crossroads GPS is noteworthy because it operates under a section of the tax code that allows it to keep the names of its donors secret — an option the organization has exercised.

The groups' combined $3.8 million in independent expenditures in the Missouri race stands as the largest pro-Republican investment in the race, which Blunt won.

Independent expenditures are funds spent by groups that do not coordinate their activities with any candidates.

The numbers come courtesy of the Sunlight Foundation, an organization that tracks money in politics on behalf of transparency. The D.C.-based nonprofit analyzes commission reports detailing independent expenditures.

The foundation, created in 2005 by Washington attorney Michael R. Klein, has received major donations from the Rockefeller Family Fund and eBay founder Pierre Omidyar.

The level of spending in this year's election was exceptional, said Paul Blumenthal, a senior writer with the foundation.

"In this election, we just saw an exponential explosion of money spent by candidates and especially by outside organizations," Blumenthal said.

Interest groups invested a total of nearly $11.7 million in independent expenditures in Missouri's Senate race. That makes the Missouri contest the sixth-highest race for independent expenditures in the nation.

It wasn't always this way. Until recently, strict limits were placed on how much money corporations and unions — two major sources of campaign cash — could spend on political campaigns through independent expenditures.

That changed in January. The Supreme Court struck down most limits on campaign spending by corporations and unions as unconstitutional, allowing those groups to spend unlimited money on campaigns.

"What Citizens United [the court decision] does is allow organizations — corporations, unions and the like — to spend money out of their general treasury for political purposes," explained MU political science professor Marvin Overby.

To the decision's supporters, the ruling is a win for freedom of speech. To its detractors, it's a blow against clean elections. Both agree, however, that the ruling will mean more outside money in politics than ever before.

Neither Blunt nor his opponent, Democrat Robin Carnahan, responded to pre-election requests for comment on independent expenditures.

In Missouri and nationally, most of that money came from pro-Republican groups.

Of the $11.7 million in the Missouri race, $6.8 million went to support Blunt and attack Carnahan, while $4.9 million was spent to back Carnahan and oppose Blunt. An environmental group, The League of Conservation Voters, was Carnahan's biggest backer with $723,219.81 in contributions.

The majority of the spending was negative, targeting one or the other candidate. About 80 percent of the total independent expenditures in the race — a little over $9.4 million — was dedicated to defeating the opponent.

American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS were skewed even more negativily, with about 90 percent of the groups' spending identified opposing Carnahan.

Jonathan Collegio, a spokesman for the Crossroads organizations, tied negative advertising to campaign regulations.

"The campaign laws make it very difficult for outside organizations to run positive ads because we're unable to coordinate in any way with candidates or candidate committees," Collegio said.

He cited the prohibition of third-party groups from using video provided by the campaigns in advertisements as an example.

Blumenthal has a different theory.

"Candidates normally don't want to be the ones to put their names to negative advertisements, and the more outside spending you have, the more opportunity for a faceless organization to take the heat for the negative advertising," he said.

"It's a lot easier for an outside organization to run negative ads. They don't have to face any negative consequences."

Tony Massaro, senior vice president of political affairs for The League of Conservation Voters, said they're distinguished from groups like American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS because they do not accept unlimited donations and do not conceal their donors.

That's true, but a sister group, the League of Conservation Voters Victory Fund, did raise and spend money in Missouri. Massaro said the group must do so in order to compete.

That group spent $28,544.74 to support Carnahan and close to $800,000 nationally to support Democrats and defeat Republicans. The Victory Fund did not impose a limit on how much any one person could contribute to the fund.

"We're at a big enough disadvantage to the corporate interests that are vastly outspending us to then not avail ourselves of all the legal opportunities there are out there," Massaro said. "You have to operate under the rules as they exist, not in the world you wish would exist."

While Blunt won both the election and the money race, Overby said the efficacy of all this spending is much-debated, since money and success tend to follow each other in politics.

"Candidates are going to get more money as they get more competitive, which in turn makes them more competitive," Overby said. "Depending on your viewpoint, it's either a vicious or virtuous circle."