Reporting from Denver — The airwaves here have been saturated with brutal ads about the U.S. Senate race in recent weeks. But few are coming from the actual candidates.
Instead, Colorado's Senate contest has the dubious distinction of having the greatest amount of money being spent this year by outside interest groups.
Since a Supreme Court ruling this year that corporations and unions can give unlimited funds to such groups, "independent expenditures" have increased sevenfold nationwide compared with the last midterm election, in 2006. More third-party money has been spent on the Senate race here than on any nonpresidential election in U.S. history.
Walt Klein recently got a view of how the avalanche of outside cash is affecting the race while waiting for a positive ad he designed for the Republican challenger, Ken Buck, to air on television. It took more than 40 minutes before the ad from the Buck campaign showed up during its scheduled time slot.
In the meantime, commercial breaks were filled with spots accusing Buck of being too extreme, or savaging Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet for supporting the healthcare bill and economic stimulus package. The ads, all negative, were paid for by either party committees, unions or, increasingly, shadowy groups that do not disclose how they get their money.
"It's like ugly wallpaper on television," Klein said.
Klein contrasted the experience with his first Senate race in 1976, when the only ads were run by the two candidates' campaigns. He compared the current election to an automobile.
"This campaign car would be driven by somebody representing these so-called independent spenders, with someone riding shotgun from the appropriate [partisan] senatorial committee," Klein said. "In the back seat would be the candidate, probably being told to keep his mouth shut."
Campaign finance experts say that spending by outside interest groups has steadily climbed since 2004, when ads aired by Swift Boat Veterans for Truth helped derail Democrat John Kerry's presidential campaign. Now, said Meredith McGehee of the Campaign Legal Center in Washington, many local elections are essentially fought by national groups. She cited a quote by former House Speaker Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill: "All politics is local."
"With all the increased outside spending, I think that maxim is being challenged," she said.
The ads also change the tenor of a race. Candidates have to carefully weigh negative ads for fear they will backfire. That's not true of outside groups.
"Independent expenditure groups are able to hit even harder or lower because they don't have to stand behind their message," said Eric Sondermann, a Denver-based political analyst.
"It's amped up the volume to unbelievable levels, and it's taken both campaigns out of control of their campaigns," he added.
In Colorado, the deluge of negative advertising has been unprecedented. According to the nonprofit Sunlight Foundation, as of Friday, $29 million had been spent by outside groups — double what both major candidates have raised, combined. That's on top of $1.3 million spent by outside groups on the primaries here.
"The worst thing about this lack of disclosure is not knowing who's behind these ads," said Bill Allison, editorial director of the Sunlight Foundation, adding that most of the new groups that don't disclose donors are helping Buck "You have these groups that can be called Americans for Good Government and be funded by big oil."
Partisan groups are focused on Colorado for several reasons. It is cheap and easy to reach voters here — 80% live within the Denver media market, which is fairly low-priced. Colorado is also a swing state and could help determine which party controls the Senate.
Then there are the candidates. Buck, a district attorney, won the GOP nomination campaigning as an outsider with "tea party" backing. Bennet, the former head of the Denver school district, is the sort of technocratic, pragmatic Democrat in vogue among the Obama administration.
"It's the perfect race," said Tony Robinson, a political science professor at the University of Colorado-Denver. "It stands as a proxy for the general election right now."
However, Robinson was skeptical that outside money had altered the nature of the race. He noted that the third-party ads tended to dovetail with the messages coming from each campaign. Buck accuses Bennet of being a big-spending rubber stamp for President Obama. Bennet accuses Buck of being reckless and too extreme to represent Colorado.
The top outside spender in the race is American Crossroads, a group run by GOP strategist Karl Rove that does not reveal its donors. It has spent more than $5 million on ads attacking Bennet, including one that asserts Bennet has voted to spend $2.5 billion per day since he was appointed to the seat in January 2009. "You have wasted our money," the announcer says.
In contrast, a wider range of groups has spent smaller sums attacking Buck. The largest expenditure of $1.9 million comes from the National Education Assn. One of its ads says that Buck wants to cut $1.1 billion from school budgets. It closes with an image of these words on a chalkboard: "Ken Buck's Plan Doesn't Add Up for our Schools."