Reporting from Washington — The 2010 congressional campaign ending Tuesday has been marked by a flood of unregulated, often secret campaign money that has transformed the political process, challenged the role of political parties, and sharply increased the power of wealthy individuals and groups on both the right and left.
And those trends are expected to grow as the 2012 presidential campaign begins.
Accepted wisdom holds that money alone seldom determines the outcome of an election.
But when a political tide is turning — as it is against Democrats this year with voters angry over the troubled economy — heavy campaign spending can leverage or magnify the favored party's advantage. This year that means the GOP is mounting effective challenges in more races, even in districts that would otherwise be considered out of reach.
Overall congressional campaign spending is expected to approach $4 billion, compared with $2.85 billion in the last midterm election.
The sluice gates of election money were opened this year after the Supreme Court ruled that corporations and unions had a free-speech right to make unlimited contributions to influence elections. The ruling encouraged wealthy corporate and conservative donors, already inclined toward Republicans, to give generous amounts to groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, active in battleground races.
The outpouring of political money was not one-sided. Spending by business groups and wealthy individuals was often matched — sometimes exceeded — by labor unions, liberal advocacy groups and wealthy individuals.
At the outset of the 2010 campaign, Democrats raised far more money than Republicans, giving primarily to candidates and to traditional party committees. The Democrats' effort was augmented, as always, by labor unions and liberal advocacy groups.
But in many races, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and similar groups more than made up for the early Democratic advantage. As a result, overall spending is roughly equal on behalf of candidates for the two major parties.
Looking ahead, some Democrats say they will adapt to the new game, in which large and sudden influxes of money from outside groups are a constant possibility.
"This is the new normal," said Joan Fitz-Gerald, president of America Votes, a little-known but influential organization that coordinates interest groups sympathetic to Democrats. "Whether we will have to do it in just the way they did, perhaps not. But we do need to squarely face reality," she said, looking ahead to 2012.
Fitz-Gerald noted that independent, pro-Republican groups were able to underwrite powerful challenges in congressional districts previously considered securely Democratic.
Democratic Rep. James L. Oberstar, for instance, represents the heavily unionized Mesabi Iron Range in northern Minnesota. He won his seat 36 years ago with 62% of the vote and enjoyed greater victory margins in all but one of the next 17 elections.
When the 2010 cycle started, Oberstar was confident. His opponent, former airline pilot Chip Cravaack, a political novice, raised only a fraction of Oberstar's $1.6-million war chest.
But recently, American Crossroads, an independent group affiliated with GOP strategist Karl Rove, started running spots on the Duluth stations that blanket the area. A group formed by Democrat-turned-Republican Dick Morris also launched a spot against Oberstar.
Then a third group called 60 Plus, which bills itself as a conservative alternative to AARP, began broadcasting $100,000 worth of ads saying it was time for the 76-year-old incumbent to retire.
Now, Oberstar's seat is in play. While still favored, he has ramped up his fundraising and aired the first negative ad of his long career.
Peter A. DeFazio, a 12-term Democrat, faces a tight race in his Oregon congressional district because of ads from the newly formed Concerned Taxpayers of America, which has only two donors: New York hedge fund executive Robert Mercer and Maryland construction company owner Daniel G. Schuster.
CTA has spent nearly $800,000, most of it against DeFazio.
DeFazio doesn't know why he's been targeted, but he is an outspoken critic of Wall Street.
DeFazio's opponent, Art Robinson, who is making his first run for public office, said he was "delighted" to have the help, saying DeFazio "has $600,000 from corporate PACs, union PACs, lawyers, lobbyists — all of the people he does favors for in Washington."
Alarms went off for DeFazio last summer when he learned that Robinson was spending much of his small war chest on lawn signs.
To DeFazio's staff, that seemed like a foolish way to allocate limited funds.
"I said, 'Well, it's not crazy if someone else is going to buy your television for you,' " DeFazio recalled. "So far, [Mercer has] bought $534,000 worth of television, which in my district is one heck of a lot of television."
DeFazio knows the identity of his attackers because the two businessmen chose to create a so-called super-PAC, a new type of organization that, unlike a traditional political action committee, is not subject to the $5,000 limit on donations by individuals.
Joe Ricketts, the former Ameritrade chief executive and owner of the Chicago Cubs, has personally funded a $1.2-million super-PAC to run ads against leading Democrats, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada.
It supported one Democrat — Rep. Walt Minnick of Idaho, who shuns the legislative earmarks that Ricketts finds particularly objectionable.
"I can't wait for other people to make up their minds and do something," Ricketts said. "I have to go ahead and do it."
With so many wealthy people emerging as political donors, some members of Congress are worried about the future.
"You could have the adopt-a-candidate program for billionaires on Wall Street," DeFazio said.