Reporting from Washington — Democrats are mounting a coordinated assault on their GOP rivals over the surge in undisclosed donations financing third-party political attack ads, seeking to turn the Republicans' advantage in independent spending into a liability.
As their congressional candidates get pummeled by outside groups that do not have to disclose their backers, Democrats are pressing the case that shadowy figures are seeking to influence the midterm election. They have even suggested foreign companies are fueling some of the campaign spending by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a charge first raised by the liberal blog Think Progress and taken up by President Obama on Thursday.
"Groups that receive foreign money are spending huge sums to influence American elections — and they won't tell you where the money for those ads comes from," Obama said at a rally in Maryland. "So this isn't just a threat to Democrats. This is a threat to our democracy."
The message was echoed throughout the party. "Foreign Countries Launch Attacks!" read the subject line of a fundraising appeal sent Friday by Rep. John Boccieri (D- Ohio).
Democratic National Committee Chairman Tim Kaine publicly challenged Karl Rove to reveal the donors to American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS, two pro-GOP groups that the Republican strategist helped launch. Meanwhile, House Democrats who have been targeted by the chamber hammered what they characterized as the group's lack of transparency on the campaign trail.
"This latest move is beyond outrageous, to being fundamentally un-American and undemocratic," Rep. Tom Perriello of Virginia said of the charges that foreign money was funding the chamber's political activities.
Party strategists said they expected television spots attempting to tie Republicans to the outside spending would launch next week.
The chamber, which has vehemently denied using foreign funds in its political efforts, dismissed the fusillade as a diversion.
"Desperate, partisan attacks are a transparent attempt to distract voters from the issue America cares most about: job creation," Bruce Josten, the chamber's executive vice president of government affairs, said in a statement.
But Democrats see an opening to appeal to two sets of voters: a listless base that may be roused by a call for stronger campaign finance reform, and independents turned off by the role of big money in politics.
"Part of the success the Republicans have had has been tapping into the public's unhappiness with politics as usual," said John Geer, chairman of the political science department at Vanderbilt University, who studies political attacks. "So here is a bunch of funding that is going on that certainly looks bad and provides Democrats with the opportunity to turn the tables."
Still, he added, "this may be a bit of a hard sell because it's not about jobs, it's not about the economy," the central concern of many voters.
That's why Democratic strategists said the party aims to link the corporate campaign spending to Republican support for outsourcing jobs, a topic that many of their candidates were already pushing.
But the line of attack could inflict friendly fire on the small group of Democrats that have the backing of the chamber.
This week, in a surprise move, the influential business lobby quietly spent nearly $2 million on ads touting 10 House Democrats who voted against Obama's healthcare overhaul, including Maryland's Frank Kratovil Jr., Virginia's Glenn Nye and Alabama's Bobby Bright. "Instead of playing partisan politics," these legislators are "working to keep America competitive," many of the spots say.
Now, campaign finance reform advocates, including MoveOn.org, are pressing those Democrats to disavow the chamber's support.
"I think the Democratic candidates in these districts need to figure out what side they're on," said David Donnelly, director of Campaign Money Watch.
Indeed, the focus on outside spending entails some risk, as the Democrats themselves have enjoyed robust backing by interest groups in the past.
"Barack Obama and the Democrats didn't complain about outside, nondisclosing groups when they were the beneficiaries of more than $400 million in independent expenditures in 2008, much of it undisclosed," said Jonathan Collegio, a spokesman for the Crossroads groups. "This is selective outrage. … Our efforts are modeled entirely off of theirs."
Democratic officials said their third-party support largely comes from organizations registered as political groups, which must disclose their contributors, and from unions, which have to report sources of income to the Labor Department.
The battle over third-party expenditures is the result of a campaign finance landscape that was radically altered in January, when the Supreme Court ruled that corporations and special interest groups could spend an unlimited amount of money directly on advocating for candidates.