WASHINGTON -- Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), who faces the Senate's toughest reelection, spent the final days of June shooting campaign video -- for an election still more than 16 months away.
Independent groups spent $1.1 million in 2014 general election Senate campaigns in Arkansas and Kentucky during the first six months of this year, 11 times the $100,000 the groups had spent at this point in 2011.
Despite questions about donor fatigue and notable super PAC bets on losing candidates in 2012, independent group campaign spending is off to the fastest start ever in next year's Senate races, according to campaign finance records. The onslaught of spending is forcing candidates like Pryor to start campaigning earlier than ever, pushing the election calendar farther back and propelling incumbents and their challengers to raise even more money to start their campaigns early.
"Because of outside spending groups, we ended up starting the campaign very early -- much earlier than usual," said Arkansas Democratic Party spokeswoman Candace Martin.
Pryor's campaign manager, Jeff Weaver, said the campaign saw the "obscene" spending in Senate races in the 2012 election. "It's pretty safe to say that we will be outspent by these groups, probably by a lot," Weaver said. "But we were kind of expecting this to happen, so we were planning for it."
Club for Growth Action, the super PAC of the conservative Club for Growth, was the first group to go up against Pryor with an ad in February telling Arkansas voters, "When you vote for Pryor, you vote for Obama."
"We thought it was important to be first to define Mark Pryor as what he is, which is a far-left extreme liberal who's in lockstep with the Democratic agenda and President Obama," said Club for Growth spokesman Barney Keller.
The Club for Growth was joined in attacking Pryor by political organizations linked to Jim DeMint, the former Republican senator from South Carolina who now heads the conservative think tank The Heritage Foundation. DeMint's Senate Conservatives Fund, a traditional PAC, and Senate Conservatives Action, a super PAC, have spent nearly $400,000 combined to oppose Pryor with television, radio and online advertising.
In response, the liberal Senate Majority PAC, a super PAC, and Patriot Majority USA, a social welfare nonprofit, launched a preemptive strike against Pryor's most likely Republican opponent, freshman Rep. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.).
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell's reelection in Kentucky, the only other 2014 Senate race to see 2013 independent expenditures by outside groups, has already seen two preemptive strikes on potential Democratic opponents. In an effort to scare off all potential opposition to McConnell, super PACs have already run ads against actress Ashley Judd and state treasurer Alison Lundergan Grimes. Since neither Judd nor Grimes had declared themselves a candidate when they were attacked by the ads, the super PACs weren't required to report their spending. The groups that backed the ads included the Karl Rove-founded American Crossroads and the pro-McConnell Kentuckians for Strong Leadership (Grimes announced her candidacy to challenge McConnell on Monday.)
Spending that has been reported in the Kentucky race came from the Democratic duo of Senate Majority PAC and Patriot Majority USA. The two groups combined to spend more than $275,000 on television and online advertising attacking McConnell.
Ty Matsdorf, a spokesman for Senate Majority PAC, said in an email message that Democratic groups were not going to cede ground to conservatives in Arkansas and Kentucky.
"In Arkansas, Tom Cotton has put his national ambitions above the people of his state, and in Kentucky, Mitch McConnell has simply lost touch after being in Washington too long," Matsdorf said. "Yet conservative groups are flooding money into these races to try and buy these seats. We refuse to let that happen, and are going to hold Mitch McConnell accountable."
Spending by independent groups has grown exponentially since the 2010 Supreme Court Citizens United ruling, which opened the door to unlimited political spending by corporations and labor unions. A subsequent lower court ruling based on the Citizens United decision freed individuals to pool unlimited sums of money into super PACs to spend independently on political campaigns.
Independent spending topped $300 million in the 2010 midterms, the first since the court rulings -- more than four times the amount spent in the 2006 midterms, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The 2012 election, fueled by the presidential contest, saw independent spending top $1 billion, more than three times the amount spent in the previous presidential election cycle.
There is also a host of independent spending occurring off the books. Issue advertising by a variety of groups this year has primarily targeted senators seeking reelection in 2014. The candidates' campaigns often see these ads as needing a political response just as much as those that feature express political advocacy.
Pryor has been the focus of one of the toughest issue advertising campaigns. Mayors Against Illegal Guns, the gun- control advocacy group founded and funded by New York City billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg, has run two advertisements targeting Pryor, one before his controversial vote against bipartisan background check legislation and one after the vote.
The second Mayors Against Illegal Guns advertisement featured Arkansan Angela Bradford-Barnes, whose friend was killed by gun violence, saying that Pryor "let us down" by voting against the background check bill. Pryor's campaign responded swiftly with his first advertisement of his reelection campaign, with Pryor defending his vote and saying, "No one from New York or Washington tells me what to do, I listen to Arkansas."
This piece has been updated to clarify that the Pryor reelection campaign is generating content for future use in the 2014 election.