With the midterm elections a month away, many campaigns have become battlegrounds for special-interest groups with substantial -- and sometimes mysterious -- financial backing.
They come in many shapes and sizes: political groups, advocacy organizations, unions, business associations. It appears that corporate money is flowing through some of these groups -- a result of a Supreme Court decision last January that let corporations and unions expressly support individual candidates or, more likely, attack them.
"The big story is we're seeing a stark increase in volume of advertising. And a lot of that is driven by candidates, and some of it is driven by interest groups," says Erika Fowler at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. Fowler is one of the political scientists behind a new national study of campaign ads and spending.
In that study, the race for Michigan's 7th Congressional District stands out. The district sits on the southern edge of the state, and it's balanced on a partisan edge as well. Rep. Mark Schauer, a Democrat, unseated Republican Tim Walberg in the district two years ago. Now, Walberg is back for a rematch.
And, Fowler says, it's the only House race where outside groups have been outadvertising the candidates themselves. In fact, they've been putting on "about 65 percent of the ads on the airwaves," Fowler says.
And every single one of them is an attack ad.
An 'Educational' Approach
"Tell Schauer he works for us, not Nancy Pelosi," says this ad from Americans for Prosperity, the group founded by oil billionaire David Koch and now a major player in the Tea Party movement.
It ran more than 300 times in August, coordinated with a grass-roots operation.
Now, obviously, the ad attacks Schauer. But it's hedged enough that an advocacy group like Americans for Prosperity can stay on the right side of the law and still not have to disclose its donors.
The group's state coordinator, Scott Hagerstrom, says it's educational to highlight Schauer's votes on the stimulus bill, cap-and-trade legislation and the health care overhaul.
"It's our position that we educate people about the votes that they've taken, how they've voted and then let people make the decision of how they want to vote," Hagerstrom says.
A Barrage Of Ads
On the Democrats' side, labor unions don't need that fig leaf of "education." The Supreme Court has said corporations and unions can do the harder-hitting ads, called independent expenditures.
So the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees laid out $750,000 for this spot, which claims, "When Tim Walberg went to Congress, his votes helped burn down our economy, damaging families and industries across Michigan."
And the Communications Workers of America spent $100,000 for an ad that says: "Now Walberg wants his old job back. But with a record like that, why would we ever rehire him?"
"We feel it's that important to make sure that we protect people who have come to Washington, D.C., and stood for workers," says Chuck Rocha, a political consultant to the Communications Workers.
A couple of weeks ago, the 7th District got still another barrage of independent expenditure ads -- $550,000 worth -- from another conservative group, the American Future Fund.
"Don't be tricked," the ad says. "Magic can't change his liberal record. But this November, your vote can make Mark Schauer disappear."
The founder of the American Future Fund, Iowa consultant Nick Ryan, says he's not coordinating with Americans for Prosperity or any of the other players in the 7th District.
"Everybody has their own mission that they want to accomplish. And so to that end I think they need to be accountable to their boards and their supporters," he says.
But, given the chaotic state of the campaign finance laws, none of these groups has to be accountable to anybody else -- including the voters of Michigan's 7th District.