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No Doubt About This: Record Spending

Supreme Court Ruling Flooded Campaign Trails With Outside Cash

One aspect of the 2010 midterm elections will be all but settled by the time polls open today: The Supreme Court’s decision earlier this year to throw out political spending restrictions has dramatically expanded the flow of money in federal elections.

“We’re seeing a sea change in American politics unfolding here,” said Fred Wertheimer, a campaign finance reform advocate and president of Democracy 21.

As of Monday, outside groups had spent $294.4 million in the runup to Election Day, more than every other midterm cycle since 1990 combined, according to the Center for Responsive Politics’ OpenSecrets.org. This cycle’s price tag is also just shy of spending totals for unions and politically minded nonprofit organizations during the 2008 election cycle, when a protracted presidential campaign pushed outside spending to $301.7 million.

Party committees aside, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has led all spenders this cycle, dumping more than $30 million into Congressional races across the country, including more than $3 million on the Senate races in Illinois, Washington and Colorado in the past two weeks, according to OpenSecrets.org.

But the chamber’s 2009-10 outlays are a marked difference from predictions made earlier in the cycle by President Tom Donohue, who said his group was prepared to spend $75 million on Congressional races. Still, the business lobby has bet big in expensive California, spending $1.6 million in the past month to help former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina (R) against Sen. Barbara Boxer (D).

The business group spent the most in the past month, almost $1.7 million, in Illinois on behalf of Rep. Mark Kirk (R), who is in a tight race against Alexi Giannoulias (D).

Vulnerable House Democrats have also been targeted by the chamber, with its biggest target — $550,000 in the past month — being Rep. Dina Titus (Nev.), who is in a competitive race. The chamber also spent almost $443,000 against Rep. Tom Perriello (Va.), who is considered one of the most endangered incumbents and for whom President Barack Obama campaigned last week.

New groups led by Rob Collins, ex-chief of staff to Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.), and George W. Bush advisers Karl Rove and Ed Gillespie have been right behind the chamber this cycle. Rove’s and Gillespie’s groups, American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS, have spent a combined $38.5 million so far this cycle, while Collins’ American Action Network had spent $26.6 million as of Monday, according to OpenSecrets.org.

After the elections, Collins said Monday in an interview, “we don’t view our role as changing” at his organization, whose mission is to “create, encourage and promote center-right policies based on the principles of freedom, limited government, American exceptionalism and strong national security,” according to its website.

“We’ve been in a role where we’re trying to educate folks as aggressively as possible, and we’ll continue to do that,” Collins said. “Our methods may change a little bit, but we’ve always been very policy-focused and will continue to do so.”

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