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Avalanche of attack ads largely anonymous

Thursday, October 21st, 2010

The midterm elections have seen a surge in hard-hitting political ads from obscure organizations, many of which keep their donors secret.

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Negative ads are nothing new, but court decisions now permit interest groups to spend millions on TV while legally hiding the sources of their funding.

But the groups do have to disclose what they’re spending promptly to the Federal Election Commission. And the Center for Responsive Politics downloads that data every hour and posts it in a website called Open Secrets.

The numbers on outside groups in Pennsylvania races confirm what you see on television – they’re here.

“Congressman Joe Sestak voted for Obama’s big government health care scheme, billions in job-killing taxes, and higher insurance premiums for hard-hit families,” declares one spot.

That ad attacking Democratic Senate candidate Joe Sestak is from a group associated with Republican operative Karl Rove. They’re among the outside groups that have poured more than $5 million into helping Republican candidate Pat Toomey.

But the data show the Republicans haven’t overwhelmed the Democrats in the Senate race. While they’ve gotten the lion’s share of the independent groups buying ads in the Senate race, the Democrats have managed to keep up with spending from traditional party committees. The two sides are about even in firepower so far.

The picture is different in congressional races.

“Meet Nancy Pelosi’s star pupil – Bryan Lentz. He’s learned his lessons well. She raises taxes in Washington. Lentz raises taxes in Pennsylvania,” claims another ad.

That’s from the a conservative group called American Action Network. It’s the fifth-largest spending group in the country this year, and it’s put $700,000 into attacking Delaware County Democratic candidate Lentz.

Republican-leaning groups have substantially outspent Democrats in five of seven contested congressional races in Pennsylvania. In one race, they’re about even.

The exception to the pattern is in Bucks County.

“Congressman Fitzpatrick? No way. Congressman Mike Fitzpatrick. After running for office in Bucks County for 20 years, he’s forgotten about us,” laments another commercial.

That misleading radio ad from the public employee union AFSCME is aimed to benefit Democratic Congressman Patrick Murphy. It leads listeners to think Fitzpatrick, a former congressman, is the incumbent in the hopes of harnessing this year’s “throw the bums out” momentum. In that race, unions have given the Democrat a big edge in outside spending.

Candidates who benefit from the outside groups’ ads say they favor disclosure of donors, and would vote for laws requiring it.

But Republican consultant Craig Snyder said in a recent forum on the midterms that it shouldn’t matter who’s paying for the ads.

“I think the American public is in fact smart enough to judge the content and merits of what they see, regardless of where the money came from,” said Snyder.

A lawsuit filed this fall will test whether groups that don’t reveal their donors are violating federal tax laws for nonprofits. The impact of their spending won’t be clear until Election Day.

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