NEW YORK — Political parties and even the candidates themselves may be eclipsed soon by outside groups in key races across the country if this week's Democratic victory in an upstate New York special House election is any indication.
Two groups that didn't exist two years ago set the pace for spending on both sides. And that's just the latest evidence that organizations with unknown agendas – and, often, donors – are proliferating and shaping campaigns.
The race to fill a vacant seat in the state's 26th Congressional District drew considerable attention – and money – from Republicans and Democrats alike as the candidates tussled over GOP plans to transform Medicare.
Dollar totals tell the inside story.
American Crossroads, a GOP-leaning group with ties to Karl Rove, spent $690,000 to help Republican Jane Corwin, more than the $424,000 invested by the National Republican Congressional Committee, according to an analysis by the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks campaign spending. And the House Majority PAC, a new group organized by several Democratic strategists, spent about $371,000 to assist Democrat Kathy Hochul, compared to $267,000 from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
The proliferation of such private groups follows last year's landmark Supreme Court decision that allowed them to spend hugely on campaigns with few restrictions. It means voters in places with competitive contests for high office are certain to be bombarded with TV ads, phone calls and mail from groups whose political goals – and in many cases, their contributors – are not disclosed.
"Outside organizations are starting to have outsized clout and are spending more than the traditional party committees," said Dave Levinthal, a spokesman for the Center for Responsive Politics. "To some degree we saw that in 2010, and all indications point to this happening more frequently and involving bigger dollars in 2012."
While the New York special election drew an unusual level of interest, he said independent groups are likely to dominate other high-profile, tight contests, too.
That includes next year's presidential race, and both sides are arming themselves accordingly.
Republicans, for now, have the edge.
They moved quickly in 2010 to take advantage of the environment in the wake of the high court's decision in the Supreme Court case, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.
GOP allies launched independent groups like Crossroads, which spent $38.5 million to defeat Democrats in 2010 by raising and spending money from large donors, many of whom went undisclosed. Other big players on that side included the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which spent $32 million in 2010, and American Action Network, which spent $26 million.
Democrats were caught flat-footed. Many of the White House's liberal allies were reluctant to walk through the newly open door, partly because President Barack Obama spoke out forcefully against the Citizens United decision and the largely unregulated, undisclosed spending it allowed.
The GOP efforts paid off handsomely, helping Republicans win control of the House and pick up six Senate seats in the 2010 elections.
Burned by that experience, White House advisers encouraged Democrats to jump in, prompting activists and donors to set up a number of organizations to do battle with their GOP counterparts.
The Democratic-leaning groups include House Majority PAC; Majority PAC, focusing on Senate races; American Bridge, which will help the other Democratic groups with opposition research, and Priorities USA, which will support Obama's re-election bid. That last group was founded by former Obama White House aides Bill Burton and Sean Sweeney and will accept the kind of large, anonymous donations Obama has deplored.
Priorities USA launched its first ad last weekend, criticizing Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney in South Carolina, an early primary state, during a Romney campaign visit.
"With Mitt Romney, you have to wonder ... what page is he on today?" the ad said.
Romney's campaign shot back, calling the ad a smear and suggesting Obama was behind it.
"President Obama and his team are desperate to change the subject to anything other than jobs and the millions of Americans out of work," Romney spokesman Andrea Saul said.
The action on the Democratic side is only encouraging Republican-aligned groups to ramp up their spending in 2012.
The Republican Super PAC, a potentially significant new player, is pushing the outer boundaries of campaign finance law: Its founder, campaign finance lawyer Jim Bopp, says the group plans to ask GOP elected officials to solicit unlimited contributions, which the group would then spend to help that official or any other candidate the official designates. Many campaign finance experts insist such coordination is illegal because federal office holders are permitted only to raise contributions that are subject to strict limits – up to $2,500 per person for a candidate and $30,800 for one of the national parties.
Bopp, a Republican National Committee member who helped steer the Citizens United case, said that since contributions to independent expenditure groups are not subject to limits, elected officials can raise unlimited donations for his group.
"I'm one hundred percent confident that we're in the mainstream of current law," Bopp said in an interview. "Nobody thought of it before, but they're thinking of it now. I fully expect Democrats to do it, maybe even President Obama."
So far, no groups on either side have been willing to follow Bopp into uncertain legal territory.
"I don't think Bopp can do what he says he wants to do, and I wouldn't recommend anyone else does," said David Keating, director of the Republican-leaning Club for Growth. "Maybe he thinks he is going to win a court case, and if he does, great. We can all follow in his footsteps."
That's also the thinking among Democrats, who are eager not to be outsmarted again. The directors of Majority PAC and the House Majority PAC sent a letter to the Federal Election Commission last week seeking an opinion on Bopp's effort. If it's determined to be legal, they can be expected to follow suit.