To hear Democrats tell the story, they cower with a few paltry dollar bills in their hands as a tsunami of campaign spending by independent conservative groups threatens to sweep them away over the next three weeks.
“It is estimated that Democratic groups are being outspent seven to one,” President Obama told a rally in Bowie, Maryland Thursday. “We’re going to need to work even harder in this election. We’re going to need to fight their millions of dollars with millions of voices.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi this week told the Huffington Post that Democrats were being outspent eight to one, in an article that said liberal groups were set to spend a mere $7 million, in comparison to $200 million from conservative groups.
But unions and liberal groups have said for months that they are spending what amounts to more than $200 million in this election cycle, and an updated count — including a verification with major labor groups that their commitments still stand — shows that amount to be more than $250 million now.
So while it is true that the rise of the Republican rainmakers has markedly altered the political campaign landscape, the Democrats’ cries of helplessness are a significant exaggeration.
And in fact, Democrats have spent more on TV ads for House races than Republicans have, according to the Campaign Media Analysis Group, which combined spending by candidates, party campaign committees, and outside groups. Over the last 60 days, Democrats have spent $47.3 million, and Republicans have spent $40.8 million.
In the Senate races, Republicans have spent $80 million to Democrats’ $61 million over the last 60 days, according to CMAG.
High-end estimates have been for months that outside conservatives groups could spend as much as $300 million in this midterm cycle, enabled by a Supreme Court decision in January and fueled by business sector dissatisfaction with President Obama’s policies and grassroots energy aimed at checking the administration’s power with a Republican House or Senate.
The big difference between conservative and liberal outside group spending so far has been on TV. GOP-aligned groups like Crossroads GPS and Americans for Prosperity have been at the fore of a five to one edge – $24.8 million to $4.9 million – in TV ads by conservative groups from Aug. 1 to Sept. 20, according to CMAG.
But the edge on TV for conservative groups is driven more by a difference in strategy than a difference in resources.
“It is legitimately that much of a spread, but the qualifier on that is at this point it’s filling in the gaps for Republicans,” said CMAG President Evan Tracey. “It’s not necessarily putting them over the top. It’s getting them a lot closer to parity.”
That’s because Democratic incumbents naturally have had an advantage over challengers, as have Democratic campaign committees. In addition, many Republican or conservative donors have avoided giving to the Republican National Committee because of concerns about Chairman Michael Steele’s spending and management of the organization.
Then there are the unions. While the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has committed an unprecedented $75 million to this election that will go mostly to Republican candidates, that still is only half of the amount being spent by three of the biggest labor organizations on behalf of Democrats.
The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees has promised $50 million to the election, SEIU has committed $44 million, and the AFL-CIO has been reported to be spending $50 million by the Associated Press, though they would not confirm that amount.
In addition, both MoveOn.org and Emily’s List have said they will spend roughly what they spent in the last midterm election in 2006. MoveOn.org spent $30 million in 2006 and Emily’s list spent $45 million. And the National Education Association this week said they will funnel $15 million to candidates of their choice.
Peter Stone, a campaign finance expert at the Center for Public Integrity, wrote a report this week that showed two other smaller liberal groups – American Votes and Patriot Majority – plan to spend $8.5 million and $12 million, respectively.
But Stone said in an interview that outside Republican groups have a three-to-two edge in money that could grow even larger.
“There is a resource disparity among the outside groups,” he said.
He allowed that the reason there is much talk of a seismic advantage for Republicans is because the two sides have chosen to allocate resources differently, with conservatives focusing on getting up on the air early and liberals – particularly the unions – putting the bulk of their money toward the ground game.
In addition, for organizations like the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, keeping their powder dry until the last days of the election means they can wait to see what races will comprise their firewall – the difference between losing and retaining control of the House – and then pour money into those key districts.
In the wake of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision earlier this year, political money from independent third party groups who do not have to disclose their donors has become a favorite talking point for Obama and Democratic politicians.
White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs on Thursday called political donations from outside groups “a threat to our democracy.” Obama used that same phrase later in the day at the Bowie event.
David Plouffe, Obama’s 2008 campaign manager and a current senior strategist at the Democratic National Committee, called the outside money “a hijacking of our democracy.”
“Why won’t they disclose? Is there foreign money? Who are the wealthy individuals, who are the corporate interests, and why are they giving?” Plouffe told reporters at the DNC. “This is a big, big threat to our democracy.”
But while Gibbs allowed that groups “on either side” should be required to disclose their donors, the bill written by Democratic lawmakers that they tried to pass earlier this year would have created exemptions for labor unions, 527 groups such as Emily’s List, and even the National Rifle Association, which has traditionally aligned itself with the GOP but has endorsed 58 House Democrat incumbents this cycle.
The unions – which file disclosure forms with the Department of Labor on how much they spend on politics – argue that their money comes primarily from dues rather than large corporate donations.
“There’s a big difference between someone from Wall Street giving [Karl] Rove a million bucks and us aggregating tiny amounts of money from firemen, janitors and teachers,” said AFL-CIO spokesman Eddie Vale.
But other non-union groups on the left have served as conduits for big ticket liberal donors. The reason that outside conservative groups are outpacing liberal groups has more to do with the current political climate and which side’s donors are motivated to give, said campaign finance experts.
Here is a list of the conservative outside groups and the figures that have been reported as their spending commitments in this election, as reported by TheDC in July:
American Crossroads – $52 million
US Chamber – $75 million
Americans for Prosperity – $45 million
American Action Network – $25 million
Club for Growth – $24 million
National Rifle Association – $20 million
National Republican Trust PAC – $20 million
Faith and Freedom Coalition – $11 million
Americans for Job Security – $10 million
Freedomworks – $10 million
Susan B. Anthony List – $6 million
Campaign for Working Families – $2 million
Heritage Foundation – $1 million
Family Research Council – $500,000