WASHINGTON -- Independent groups have spent $180 million in the first two weeks of October, attempting to influence political contests ranging from the presidential race between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney on down to dozens of House races.
The majority of that money -- $117 million -- is being spent by groups that either would not exist or would not be allowed to spend money on direct electoral efforts if it were not for the Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision.
At the presidential level, post-Citizens United groups have spent enormous amounts in October, with Republicans spending more than Democrats. In the fight for control of the Senate, post-Citizens United groups have surpassed traditional groups in terms of money spent over the past two weeks. The largest total expenditure over the past two weeks has occurred at the House level, where traditional, pre-Citizens United groups like party committees still make up the majority of independent spending.
The Citizens United ruling freed corporations and unions to spend unlimited sums on political efforts, as long as the groups remained independent from candidates and political parties. A subsequent ruling, based solely on the court's assertion in Citizens United that independent expenditures could not corrupt, opened the door for individuals to make unlimited contributions to independent political groups -- paving the way for the creation of the super PAC.
These super PACs have been the most lavish spenders for campaigns this fall, dropping $79 million from Oct. 1 through Oct. 15 on efforts calling for the election or defeat of a candidate. Social welfare non-profit groups and trade associations -- neither of which could spend money on direct electoral appeals prior to Citizens United -- spent a combined $34.6 million in the first two weeks of October. Unions -- which were previously not allowed to spend general treasury funds on electoral appeals to people not on their membership rolls -- have been able to spend $3.1 million in the past two weeks thanks to the Citizens United ruling.
The presidential contest has attracted the biggest slice of this Citizens United-empowered money, with $55.3 million spent in just two weeks in October. The spending disparity is stark -- groups trying to unseat President Obama have spent $40 million, while groups opposing Mitt Romney have spent just $15 million.
Down-ballot, the playing field is somewhat more level. Republican super PACs, non-profits and trade associations hold a smaller lead over Democratic influencers in spending for House and Senate races. At the House level, Republican groups empowered by Citizens United spent $18 million in the first half of October, compared to $11.4 million spent by Democratic groups. The split is almost identical at the Senate level, where Republican groups have spent $18 million compared to $12 million spent by Democratic groups.
For traditional outside spending groups that were not affected by the court's Citizens United ruling -- party committees and traditional PACs -- the spending breakdown is less favorable to Republicans. Overall, these traditional groups spent a total of $63.5 million through the first two weeks of October.
Traditional Democratic groups have heavily outspent Republicans in the crucial Senate races that will determine control of the chamber next year. Led by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC), pre-Citizens United Democratic groups spent $16.4 million in the first two weeks of October on Senate races, compared to just $4 million spent by Republican groups.
Traditional Republican groups spent $21 million for House races, with big support from the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) and the National Rifle Association's PAC. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) and a variety of union PACs in support of Democratic candidates have spent a cumulative $15.8 million, in comparison.
Party and traditional PAC spending at the presidential level has been low when compared to the Congressional and Senate contests. Pre-Citizens United Republican groups spent $4.7 million to oppose Obama, while comparative Democratic groups spent only $1.27 million to target Romney and support the president.
Total independent spending for 2012 has more than doubled from figures spent in the last presidential election. Over $730 million has been spent, according to the Sunlight Foundation. The total spent by all independent groups in the first two weeks of October -- $180 million -- is only slightly less than the $223 million spent for the entire 2008 election up through Oct. 15.