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Interest Groups Inundate Northeast Ohio Race

Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call
The tight race for Ohio's 16th district between Republican Rep. Jim Renacci (above) and Democratic Rep. Betty Sutton has spurred massive involvement from interest groups.

Few House races better capture the way outside interest groups have taken over campaigns than the Member-vs.-Member face-off between Republican Jim Renacci and Democrat Betty Sutton in Ohio’s 16th district.

It’s not just the incessant TV ads that have saturated the airwaves so thoroughly that, as one Renacci aide put it, voters “can’t even tell which candidate’s which at this point.” It’s also the bundles of glossy campaign literature stuffing voters’ mailboxes, the radio spots, Web ads, the canvassers who call day and night.

Both Sutton and Renacci say the barrage of outside spending has left voters bewildered and overwhelmed and has made it tougher for the candidates themselves to cut through the clutter. From big-spending labor unions and business-friendly trade groups to gun advocates, abortion opponents and animal rights groups, every issue group on the map seems to have a stake in the race.

Outside spending is soaring nationally in the first presidential race since the Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling that deregulated political spending. Spending by nonparty outside groups totaled $608.6 million as of mid-October, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. That’s more than twice the $301.7 million such organizations spent on the 2008 elections. 

In the redrawn 16th district, outside spending has hit $5.4 million, by the center’s tally, double the $2.7 million the candidates have doled out from their campaign accounts. Activists have flocked to the race because of the sharp contrast between the business-friendly Renacci and Sutton, a three-term House Member and daughter of a boilermaker.

“It’s massive noise, and it makes it more difficult for voters to size up candidates,” said Sutton, who has co-sponsored bills to improve campaign disclosure, match small donations with public funding, and amend the Constitution to reverse the 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling.

Renacci, who’s seeking a second term, is no happier with the system, but he opposes sweeping new restrictions. Outside groups bombarded him with negative ads in 2010, he recalled, to little effect.

“I’m a big believer in the First Amendment,” Renacci said. “So I’m not going to gripe about the outside spending. Because political speech in America is one of the most protected forms of speech. And I think if we start talking about [restricting] those dollars, we’re going down a pretty slippery slope.”

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