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Spending on congressional races soars

With stakes high, super PACs try to exert influence

The Massachusetts Senate race ranks second in spending, but super PACs have contributed only a small fraction of it.

Charles Krupa/Associated Press/file

The Massachusetts Senate race ranks second in spending, but super PACs have contributed only a small fraction of it.

WASHINGTON — Congressional candidates and their outside benefactors are on track to spend at least a record $2.3 billion to influence the outcome of Tuesday’s vote, underscoring the expansive role of super PACs on Capitol Hill even during an election dominated by the presidential race.

Expenditures by the candidates themselves might not eclipse the records set in 2010, election watchdog groups say, but deep-pocketed special interest groups are spending with abandon.

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“It’s an insane amount of money flooding into a number of races,” said Lee Drutman, a senior fellow at the Sunlight Foundation, which advocates for transparency in campaign financing.

Drutman likened the spending to an arms race. “There’s this belief that every additional missile or every additional ad might be the one that makes the difference,” he said.

The record pace reflects the high stakes riding on Tuesday’s election, as Republicans and Democrats seek to seize control of Washington’s legislative agenda amid growing pressure to overhaul the tax code and entitlement programs, as well as address the country’s $16 trillion debt.

The spending also reflects the fallout from a series of court decisions and Federal Election Commission rulings that opened the gates to unlimited spending by corporations, unions, and other groups. Also, nonprofit issue groups, which unlike super PACs operate primarily under the rules of the IRS and are not required to reveal their donors, have been especially active, watchdog groups say.

The battle for the Senate is especially intense. Democrats hold a slim majority and money is flowing into tossup races from New England to Nevada.

In Virginia, outside groups have pumped at least $50.7 million into the race between former Democratic governor Tim Kaine and former Republican senator George Allen, dwarfing the $30 million spent by the candidates themselves and making it the country’s most expensive Senate tilt. Outside groups have spent $45.1 million in Wisconsin and $34.8 million in Ohio, according to the latest FEC filings tabulated by the Center for Responsive Politics.

In Massachusetts, super PACs have independently spent $6.2 million to benefit the campaigns of Senator Scott Brown and Democrat Elizabeth Warren — a paltry sum compared with other high-profile races. That’s because the candidates in January pledged to limit outside influences. The pact, which has mostly held, rejects outside broadcast ads but did not bar such groups from sending out mailers, making robocalls, and other get-out-the-vote spending.

Still, the Massachusetts Senate race ranks second in total spending — at least $76.7 million thus far — thanks to the fund-raising prowess of the Brown and Warren campaigns.

So far, an estimated $455 million has been spent by outside groups to bolster candidates in the House and Senate, up from $296 million from two years ago, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington nonprofit that promotes transparency in campaign financing.

Republican-affiliated groups have been more successful than their Democratic counterparts. Crossroads GPS, the Chamber of Commerce, and Club for Growth are saturating the airwaves with television spots.

Democratic benefactors such as Majority PAC are returning fire with their ads.

As expected, spending in the final weeks of the campaign has been especially furious, analysts said. In the past week, some $58 million was spent by outside groups on Senate races, and $67 million for House contests, according to the Sunlight Foundation, which culled data from filings with the Federal Election Commission.

“All this money has been raised, and will be spent. They’re not going to hold it in reserves. They’re going to blow all of it to influence the outcome of these races,” said Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics.

Barney Keller, a spokesman for the super PAC Club for Growth Action Fund, contends such spending is a pure form of free speech.

“It’s a great thing when people take an interest in the election process,” Keller said. “When you have the speech police . . . writing the rules for who can spend how much and can say what in campaigns, there’s a word for that. It’s called tyranny.”

Club for Growth Action Fund has spent $18 million on behalf of Republican congressional candidates.

Of particular concern, say campaign finance watchdogs, is spending by nonprofit groups. They dub such spending “dark money” because these groups are not required to follow the same disclosure rules as traditional campaign committees. They also can be used by wealthy individuals or companies and unions as a conduit to funnel their donations to super PACs without disclosing the source.

The super PAC FreedomWorks for America, for example, received $2.3 million from a sister nonprofit group, FreedomWorks, which doesn’t have to divulge its donor list to the FEC. FreedomWorks generally supports Tea Party candidates.

“What’s surprising is the degree to which money is churning within these related organizations. There are a lot we don’t know,” Krumholz said. “It makes a mockery of disclosure rules, allowing them to have their cake and eat it, too.

As of Thursday, more than 100 of these nonprofit groups spent $86 million on Senate races and $58 million on House races, according to a Sunlight Foundation analysis that showed Republicans benefitting from the largesse by a 4-to-1 ratio.

One of these groups, Crossroads GPS, established by Republican strategist Karl Rove, has spent at least $48.5 million on congressional races, three times the $16 million it spent in 2010, mostly in attack ads against Democrats.

Money, however, is no guarantee of victory. Two years ago, former pro wrestling executive Linda McMahon spent $50.1 million of her fortune in her bid for an open Senate seat in Connecticut, only to lose by 12 percentage points to Democrat Richard Blumenthal, who spent $8.7 million and got $2.1 million in unsolicited help from outside groups.

McMahon is in the midst of another run, spending at least $36 million of her money against Representative Chris Murphy, whose campaign has less than $10 million to spend but is getting $7.5 million in help from outside allies. Analysts consider the race a tossup.

Even with all the money in play, most campaign watchers expect the Senate to remain in Democratic hands and the Republicans to maintain control of the House.

Money is important but so are such factors as candidate likability and stances on key issues, said Stuart Rothenberg, a Washington analyst who produces a widely read report on the political landscape.

“Politicians spend lots of money and lose all the time,” he said.

Bobby Caina Calvan can be reached at bobby.calvan@globe.com. Follow him on twitter @GlobeCalvan.
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