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Court rulings change elections, independent spending dwarfs party spending in midterm

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Outside spending by independent groups is dramatically changing the face and shape of elections in the United States in the 2010 midterms. So far, this year there has been more than $200 million spent on independent expenditures by all outside groups, including party committees. Aside from the increase in money spent the big change this election cycle is that independent groups are now spending more money on influencing the election than political parties.

According to data obtained from the Federal Election Commission, fifty-nine percent of all outside spending on independent expenditures has come from non-party aligned groups while only forty-one percent comes from the party committees. This is a dramatic change from the 2006 midterms (as of October 19, 2006) when party committees accounted for eighty-two percent of all outside spending on independent expenditures and non-party aligned committees accounted for eighteen percent.

2006 Outside SpendingThe total amount spent on independent expenditures by non-party outside groups this election cycle is a shade over $106 million compared to only $72.8 million spent by the party committees. At the same time in 2006 the parties had spent $118 million to the non-party groups' $25 million.

Independent expenditures are made by an outside committee to support or oppose candidates for election, as opposed to electioneering communications, which focus on an issue and only mention a candidate. (A full description of the differences can be found here.)

This dramatic change has occurred in the wake of two controversial Supreme Court rulings, which have upended the campaign finance system in federal, state and local elections.

The first ruling came in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission where the court issued a 5-4 ruling allowing corporations, unions and independent groups to run express advocacy advertisements (those that call for the election or defeat of a candidate), which overturned a previous 1990 court case forbidding such ads. The Citizens United ruling also argued that unlimited contributions to outside groups have no corrupting influence on candidates.

The argument that candidates would not suffer corrupting influences from spending by outside groups led to a second ruling from a federal appeals court in the case SpeechNow.org v. Federal Election Commission. The SpeechNow case built upon the "no corrupting influence" argument by ruling that independent groups--non-party aligned groups--could accept unlimited contributions from donors, but would still have to register with the Federal Election Commission and disclose.

This has created a multi-tiered election system where the parties and candidates operate under one set of rules with contribution limits and disclosure requirements, political action committees can accept unlimited contributions if they choose, but must file disclosure reports, and outside groups operating under the non-profit section of the tax code can accept unlimited contributions, not disclose any of their donors and run political and issue advertisements.

The current top spenders on independent expenditures include groups from across the campaign finance rainbow. Crossroads GPS, organized as a 501c(4) organization, has spent $7.9 million so far and does not disclose their donors. The National Association of Realtors, organized as a traditional political action committee (PAC) with limits on contributions, has spent $5.6 million and does disclose donors. Alaskans Standing Together, organized as a Super PAC taking unlimited contributions, has spent nearly $600,000 and discloses its large donors.

The outside groups are supplanting traditional party spending largely on the Republican side of the aisle. There are currently eight outside groups that have each spent at least $2 million exclusively on aiding Republican candidates.

These groups are American Crossroads, American Crossroads GPS, American Future Fund, The 60 Plus Association, Americans for Job Security, Club for Growth Action Fund, Club for Growth and Tea Party Express.

These eight groups have combined to outspend the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) and the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) by $9 million so far. By comparison, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) have out spent the combined spending of the eight highest spending outside groups that are exclusively aiding Democrats by $17 million. (Follow the spending here.)

After the court rulings the President advocated for a bill, the DISCLOSE Act, that would have required outside groups to disclose their donors. The bill died as all 41 Republican senators and one Democrat voted against cloture.