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Eleven House races drawing 11th-hour outside money

by Becca Heller and Lindsay Young
Some of the freshmen in races targeted by late infusions of outside cash. From L-R: Allen West, R-Fla; Joe Walsh, R-Ill.; Francisco Canseco, R-Texas.

It doesn't take a whole lot of money to make a big difference in some House races, and as the days dwindle down to hours before polls close on Nov. 6, some outside interest groups are trying to do just that. Sunlight's weekly survey of independent campaign expenditures found that some congressional contests that hadn't previously registered on our radar were suddenly drawing lots of outside cash late in the campaign. 

Seven of these 11 races involve Republican freshmen swept in on the tea party tidal wave of 2010.

All are rated as competitive by the nonpartisan Cook Political Report; seven are toss ups. But in several cases, outside groups appear to be taking longshot bets that they can change the outcome of the race with last-minute infusions of cash. It's either a sign of how volatile the political landscape is, or of how much excess money is sloshing around in it.

A look at the races:

Arizona 9th Congressional District

This month, outside interests have poured almost $1.3 million into this new congressional district, created when the once-a-decade reappportionment process that follows every Census gave fast-growing Arizona an additional seat in Congress. Ninety-seven percent of the third-party spending has been in opposition to the Democratic candidate, state Sen. Krysten Sinema. The National Republican Congressional Committee has led the charge, spending just under $1 million during the period on media buys and survey research. Though the Cook Political Report rates the district as having a slight Republican lean, the nonpartisan publication gives Sinema the edge over Republican candidate, Vernon Parker. Some political analysts think Park may have a difficult time outrunning the sharply conservative positions he'd laid out previously. In contrast, Sinema -- who, if elected, would be the first openly bisexual member of Congress -- has toned down her very liberal stances to appeal to more moderate voters. With less than a week before elections, Parker is left hoping that the NRCC's negative ads targeting Sinema will pay off.

California 35th Congressional District

Independence USA PAC, created by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, has leaped into this race in a big way, providing $2.7 million to help state Sen. Gloria Negrete McLeod in her effort to oust veteran Democratic Rep. Joe Baca. That is most of the $3 million in outside spending for the seat. Read more about Independence USA, which is supporting centrists, here. The Democrat-on-Democrat fight was made possible by California's so-called "jungle" primary in which candidates of all parties run in the same preliminary round and the two two finishers, regardless of party affiliation, face off in November. McLeod is more liberal than Baca, a former chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus who has had a history of irking some of the group's female members. 

Connecticut 5th Congressional District

This seat, which became open when Democratic incumbent Chris Murphy decided to make a run for the U.S. Senate, has become a magnet for outside money. Ten outside groups have dumped $4.7 million into the race so far. A large part of this is a last-minute spending spree favors Republican Andrew Roraback, leading Democrat Elizabeth Esty in a poll released earlier this month, as reported by Politico.

One big eleventh-hour spender, Bloomberg's Independence USA PAC , is providing $1.1 million to support Roraback.  

Another $1 million came from The Government Integrity Fund Action Network, which offers little clue as to who is behind the money, other than an Ohio address and one donation. New York philanthropist and conservative media entrepreneur Roger Hertog gave the group $10,000 back in June. So far, no information on where the $1 million it has dropped in support of Roraback came from or why an Ohio super PAC is so interested in the Connecticut House race. Read more about the shadowy Government Integrity Fund Action Network here.

Esty is getting some help from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which has spent $1 million to oppose Roraback.

Florida 2nd Congresssional District

In Florida's conservative Panhandle, freshman Republican Rep. William Southerland is trying to hold onto his seat against Democratic state Sen. Alfred Lawson and, as the election approaches, outside groups have been spending money on both sides. According to the Cook Political Report, the district is leaning Republican, but conservative groups haven't let up with outside spending, and Americans for Tax Reform spent more than $1 million in the past month on ads attacking Lawson. On the other side, the DCCC and House Majority PAC have spent about $1 million dollars collectively in efforts to undermine Southerland and give Lawson a boost.

Florida 10th Congressional District

As in the 2nd Congressional District, this central Florida race features a freshman Republican, the auspiciously named Rep. Daniel Webster, trying to become a second-termer. In this case, Democrat Val Deming, a retired police chief, is given high marks for running an aggressive campaign that has given Webster an unexpectedly strong challenge.  In the last month, however, outside spending in this race has been largely from left-leaning  groups. Of the roughly $4 million that has been spent in this race in October, about $3 million has gone towards either supporting Deming or opposing Webster. Key players in this financial frenzy are Florida Freedom PAC and Workers' Voice , whicho have collectively put about $800,000 towards supporting Deming; In addition the DCCC (with $1.4 million) and Independence USA PAC and House Majority PAC (each with contributions of about $200,000) have targeted Webster with negative ads. The National Rifle Association's Political Victory Fund and Institute for Legislative Action and the National Right to Life's  PAC and Victory Fund are Webster's only notable supporters this past month, with about $300,000 in positive media buys collectively.

Florida 18th Congressional District

As if they needed more money: The toss-up race in this Florida district, which stretches long the Atlantic coast north of Palm Beach, was already the second most expensive House race in the country, according to the Center for for Responsive Politics, thanks to the two-way fundraising power of yet another freshman Republican, brash tea party favorite Allen West.  Now, in the closing weeks, comes a rush of major outside spenders with a total of $16.8 million in additional case. The largest: the Treasure Coast Jobs Coalition, spending $2.4 million to oppose Democratic candidate Patrick Murphy. (Click here for more about the New Jersey physician who is a major donor.) The pro-Democratic House Majority PAC responded with $2.3 million to oppose West -- who has a  $17 million warchest of his own.

Illinois 8th Congressional District

Conservative groups are dominating the outside money race in this suburban Chicago district where freshman Republican Rep. Joe Walsh is considered the underdog against Tammy Duckworth, a Black Hawk helicopter pilot who lost both legs and part of one arm in Iraq. She later served as an assistant secretary for veterans affairs in the Obama administration. In recent weeks, however, there's been an onslaught of outside funding to help Walsh hold onto his seat:  Now or Never PAC , bankrolled by Midwestern conservatives, has laid down $2.9 million to oppose Duckworth, and support Walsh. Now or Never PAC gets its largest donation through "Americans for Limited Government" and most of the group's spending has occurred in October. The second biggest push is from the Tea Party-affiliated Freedomworks For America , at $2.1 million; followed by the National Republican Congressional Committee with $445,000.

Illinois 12th Congressional District 

This district, which stretches from the suburbs of St. Louis to cover the southwestern corner of Illinois, has seen a recent influx of outside spending with nearly $5.5 million coming in in the last month. Left as an open seat after Rep Jerry Costello, D-Ill., announced his retirement, it was initially considered a solid win for Democratic candidate Bill Enyart, but the Cook Political Report changed the status in early October to a toss-up race, noting that the unpopularity of President Obama's energy policies in the coal-producing part of the state he used to represent may give Republican candidate Jason Plummer a chance. Conservative groups have poured $2.8 million into the effort to erase Enyart's narrow lead. Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies, the NRCC, and the YG Network have each spent half a million on media buys and Americans for Tax Reform and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have also each contributed just over $400,000 on attack ads. Liberal groups have not been watching idly, however. The DCCC has spent nearly $1.8 million in the last month in media buys, and the House Majority PAC has also spent $500,000 on ads targeting Plummer.

Minnesota 8th Congressional District

This Iron Range district has attracted almost $5.7 million in outside spending. Freshman Republican Rep. Chip Cravaack is trying to hold onto the seat he won two years ago in his stunning upset of 18-term Democratic incumbent Jim Oberstar. This year Rick Nolan is trying to reclaim the seat for Democrats in a race that the Cook Political Report rates a toss-up. It's no surprise then, that both parties have received considerable financial contributions as the election looms near; Outside groups have spent about $3 million on Cravaack and more than $2.6 million on Nolan. The majority of this money has been geared towards negative ads, with the House Majority PAC (which spent $960,000) and the DCCC (with $1.5 million) leading the attack against Cravaack, and the NRCC (with $1.3 million) and the American Action Network (with $1 million) leading the opposition against Nolan.

Michigan 1st Congressional District

More than $4 million has gone into this race, where another freshman Republican is trying to defend a seat long held by Democrats. Polls show Democratic candidate Gary McDowell just ahead of freshman Republican Rep. Dan Benishek. Traditionally, a socially conservative district, this part of the Upper Peninsula appears to have lost some faith in Benishek due to the fiscally conservative policies that characterized his period in office. Liberal outside groups have also thrown substantial financial weight into defeating Benishek with a total of $2.3 in spending on media buys. The League of Conservation Voters , the House Majority PAC, and the DCCC each have spent more than $500,000 on attack ads in the last month. With conservative outside groups fighting to hold on to the seat, McDowell, too, is the target of attack ads, and the NRCC and the Karl Rove-founded  Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies have spent more than $1 million collectively on media buys.

Texas 23rd Congressional District

The DCCC and NRCC have weighed in heavily this month in this vast west Texas border district where another freshman Republican, Rep. Raul Canseco, is trying to hold onto his seat against Pete Gallego, a veteran state legislator and prosecutor. The districts shades Republican but Gallego has a history of being able to win in GOP territory; Republicans may lose a seat in Congress if Canseco can't lock down conservative base. The DCCC sees this vulnerability and has jumped on it, spending $1.1 million dollars on attack ads to weaken Canseco. The NRCC is spending just a little less -- $900,000 -- to target Gallego and support Canseco.

(Photo credit: U.S. House of Representatives)