Outside groups are pouring money into Minnesota's 8th District where the race for Congress is likely to be one of the most hotly contested elections in the state this year.
U.S. Rep. Chip Cravaack, a Republican in his first term, will defend his seat against Democrats who believe they have a good chance of regaining it. Former U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar, a Democrat, represented the district for 36 years before Cravaack rode an anti-incumbent wave to an upset victory two years ago.
Not long after Cravaack took office in January 2011, heavily financed political action committees began spending money in the district to influence voters' perceptions in the Democratic-leaning district.
Most of the ads attacked his voting record and his office's lease of an expensive SUV to travel around the district — and almost all have come from outside groups such as labor unions and liberal super PACs. Super PACS can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money as long as they technically don't coordinate the spending with a candidate.
The latest outside group to spend money in the 8th District is the CREDO Super PAC, associated with CREDO Mobile. The private cell phone company funnels some of its profits into liberal causes and asks its 2.5 million members to also contribute.
The super PAC plans to spend millions this year in the 8th District and in other congressional races, but not necessarily on advertisements, said CREDO Political Director Becky Bond.
"We're going to try and get several thousand people to agree to be part of the grassroots efforts to educate voters in the district about what Cravaack stands for and what he's done in office," Bond said. "And we're going to defeat him come Election Day."
The Supreme Court's Citizens United decision of last year — which allows corporations to support political candidates — laid the groundwork for companies like CREDO to become more directly involved in elections.
Although, the group aims to ultimately remove corporate money from politics, Bond said its involvement this year is essentially defensive.
"We can't just sit by and let these right-wing super PACs put the tea party in charge of Congress in the short term," she said.
Cravaack campaign advisor Ben Golnik said his campaign is ready for the onslaught of outside spending.
"Well, I think the assumption will be like last time, where Chip Cravaack was outspent and was attacked by different groups," Golnik said. "I don't think that will be different this time. You know, he certainly has a target on his back."
A few conservative outside groups have also weighed in, including one called the 60 Plus Association which aired an ad last year commending Cravaack for his votes on the Republican budget roadmap sponsored by U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis. It would have transformed Medicare into a voucher-based system for seniors.
But other big conservative-leaning outside groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have skipped the 8th District race to put their money into congressional contests elsewhere.
Whatever outside groups choose to spend in the 8th District, will be a challenge for voters to untangle just exactly who is spending how much and on what. As long as advertisements don't explicitly call for Cravaack's defeat or re-election, they don't have to be reported to the Federal Elections Committee.
So far, the only outside group that has reported its spending is the House Majority PAC, a Democratic super PAC that has spent $68,000 on ads against Cravaack.
The only way to find out how much has been spent would be to inquire in person at every television and radio station in the 8th District and surrounding areas for the station's records. Doing so would be complicated, said Bill Allison, editorial director for the Sunlight Foundation, a group that tracks campaign spending.
"We did a test drilling and got some of these forms and every station has a different way of doing this," Allison said. "It would really be a Herculean task to make sense of all of this."
Cravaack raised $759,000 last year for his campaign. The three Democrats who are competing for the chance to run against him — former U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan, Duluth City Councilman Jeff Anderson and former state Sen. Tarryl Clark — collectively raised almost an identical amount.
The rise of super PACS and other outside groups means it is likely that much more will be spent on the campaign.
But just how much more may not be known until months after the election is over.