Many electrons and much ink has been spilled to examine the massive amounts of money being spent by third party groups like Super PACs in the presidential race, but where that money really has a huge impact is in the downticket races for the House and Senate. The battle for Sherrod Brown’s seat is a perfect example:
But 2012 is not a normal year—and Brown is not a normal incumbent. Over the last nine months, spending on anti-Brown television ads by super PACs and 501(c)(4) “social welfare” groups such as the Chamber of Commerce, the 60 Plus Association, and Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS has soared to more than $11.5 million; meanwhile, Brown’s average polling lead over his Republican opponent, State Treasurer Josh Mandel, has been cut in half. The FOP’s support is no longer a cherry atop the frontrunner’s sundae; it’s a shield that’s about to get battered in a very brutal, very expensive battle.
Half an hour later, a slightly less jovial Brown tells Newsweek how he’s really feeling today. “I’m disturbed,” he admits. “If it weren’t for all the outside money, this wouldn’t even be a race.”
And nearly all of that money comes from a handful of ultra-rich donors who are making an investment that can only pay off when the candidate they support is elected to office and works diligently to pass laws that boost their profits and net worth. And this has a much larger effect in House and Senate races than it does in the presidential race:
For all Chicago’s complaining, the impact of outside money on the national contest may wind up being minimal; the polls have been static so far, and after a certain point, there are only so many hundreds of millions of dollars that can be pumped into the Denver ad market. Where the cash could make the biggest difference, however, is on the state level. “Dropping $15 million into the presidential race won’t be determinative,” says Rick Hasen, an expert on campaign finance at the University of California, Irvine. “Dropping $15 million into a Senate race will be a bombshell.”
Under the media radar, vulnerable Senate candidates have spent the last few months getting pummeled by outside attacks. Crossroads GPS and similar groups have spent more than $6.5 million slamming Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill for supporting Obamacare; she currently trails all three of her potential Republican challengers in the polls. In Nebraska, Bob Kerrey has taken roughly $2 million in incoming fire, including an Americans for Prosperity ad set to Psycho-style music. In Florida, billionaire Sheldon Adelson has given $1 million to a pro–Connie Mack super PAC, and Rove’s American Crossroads has reserved $6.2 million in fall airtime.
But it does more than that. Even if that money doesn’t shift the election this time, it gives those corporate interests enormous leverage after the election. If Sherrod Brown and Claire McCaskill both manage to win tough elections and return to office, that’s hardly the end of it. When a bill comes up that has a real effect on the bottom line of an industry, the lobbyists from that industry can then walk into their offices and tell them that if they don’t vote their way, or make sure some unknown provision is buried or weakened, they’re going to spend twice as much next time to make sure they’re defeated. That’s how politics now works.