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Groups slather $478 million on races in Senate, House | TribLIVE.com
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Groups slather $478 million on races in Senate, House

Today couldn’t come soon enough for Lou Franceson.

“If you’re sitting here watching TV, you feel like you can’t vote for anybody because of the way they try to make everybody look bad,” said Franceson, 55, a Bloomfield Democrat. “I can’t wait for the election to be over.”

He’s not alone. Corporations, unions and other interest groups spent nearly $500 million to influence Senate and House races, especially two high-profile contests in Pennsylvania.

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the Senate showdown between Lehigh County Republican Pat Toomey and Delaware County Democrat Rep. Joe Sestak ranks second among Senate races in money spent by outside groups, at $26.2 million. The race between Johnstown Democrat Rep. Mark Critz and Eighty-Four Republican businessman Tim Burns in the 12th Congressional District attracted the fourth-most money among House races, at $6.3 million.

“I can’t wait for this (campaigning) to end, and I’m a political scientist,” said Thomas Baldino, a professor at Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre.

The Supreme Court in January overturned campaign spending limits on the groups, ruling such laws violate their First Amendment rights to free speech. Allowing corporations and unions to spend unlimited amounts of money on political advertisements, phone calls, literature and other activities contributed greatly to the “exponential increase,” said Dave Levinthal, spokesman for the Center for Responsive Politics. Groups can do so without disclosing who finances the activities.

“That decision helped to widen the river of cash flowing into races,” Levinthal said.

Outside groups spent $477.9 million on House and Senate races, compared to $300 million four years ago and just $30.9 million in 2002. When political party committees’ contributions are excluded, outsiders put up $294.4 million, versus $68.9 million four years ago.

“Political speech by corporations is protected by the First Amendment,” said U.S. Chamber of Commerce Executive Vice President R. Bruce Josten in a letter to the Senate this summer. The chamber was the top outside spender aside from political committees, at $34.8 million.

“As the Supreme Court has emphasized, the First Amendment has its fullest and most urgent application to speech uttered during a campaign for political office. In addition, the Supreme Court repeatedly has recognized that voluntary associations are vital participants in the public debate.”

Conservative groups outspent liberal ones, $265.3 million to $196.9 million, and eight of the top 10 contributors aside from political party committees are conservative. Conservatives outspent liberals in the last midterm elections by $100,000, but liberals spent more in the two midterms before that.

The result of the extra money is a deluge of campaign advertisements — almost impossible for Pennsylvania residents to ignore, if they watch television or listen to radio.

“I’m tired of (the negative ads), but it’s the way it is. They increase right before the election because, unfortunately, that’s when most people start paying attention,” said Gregory Norman, 52, a Republican from Allison Park.

Interest groups put money into races between Democrat U.S. Rep. Jason Altmire and Republican challenger Keith Rothfus; Democrat Rep. Kathy Dahlkemper and GOP challenger Mike Kelly; and the West Virginia Senate race between Democrat Gov. Joe Manchin and Republican businessman John Raese.

“I understand advocates of free speech say it’s the right of groups to get their message out, but … the money is being used for one of the most insidious aspects of modern politics — negative campaigning,” said Chris Borick, a professor at Muhlenberg College in Allentown. “The goal is, if you digest enough of these ads, you’ll feel queasy toward the candidate being targeted.”


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