10/11/2010 12:22 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Independent Group Spends $355,000 To Oppose Van Haaften (UPDATED)

A tax-exempt organization accused of filtering anonymous corporate donations into political advertising has spent more than $350,000 to oppose Indiana's 8th District Democratic candidate, Trent Van Haaften, according to Federal Election Commission's records.

Americans for Job Security spent more than $6 million on anti-Democrat ads during this year's primaries and paid more than $4 million in September and October for advertising attacking 10 Democratic Congressional candidates. About $355,000 of that amount was spent on ads and direct mailings urging voters not to send Van Haaften, an Indiana House representative, to Washington, according to independent expenditures filed with the FEC. Van Haaften is competing against Republican Larry Bucshon for the seat being vacated by U.S. Rep. Brad Ellsworth, who is running for the U.S. Senate.

Bucshon was one of 20 people included in July on a list of underfunded Republican candidates. The list, compiled by conservative National Review Online columnist Jim Geraghty in consultation with Republican strategists and "conservative House-watchers," defined the candidates' races as those in which the third quarter's donations would be "most likely to prove decisive" in the November elections.

By late June, the latest date for which comprehensive campaign finance reports are available from the FEC, Bucshon had $206,000 left in his campaign chest, while Van Haaften had $360,000.

Van Haaften spokesman Zach Knowling said he doesn't think ads by outside groups will have the desired impact on 8th District voters, who are focusing more on the loss of local jobs than on national issues he said are raised in the ads.

"I think people are sick of the rhetoric," he said. "People are angry about the economy and angry about the direction the country is going. They want somebody to identify with those issues and talk about how to fix them."

Knowling called Americans for Job Security "a shadowy group backed by big corporate interests" that should be focusing on its primary issue -- jobs. The group describes itself as "the only independent, bi-partisan, pro-business issue advocacy organization in America."

Two Van Haaften attack ads paid for by Americans for Job Security aired on Evansville-area TV stations in September. The group spent more money in October on a direct mailing opposing Van Haaften.

Both TV ads align Van Haaften unfavorably with Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. One criticizes his vote against property tax caps in the Indiana Legislature, and the other links him to Pelosi's agenda.

Watch one of the ads below:

Matthew Ballard, spokesman for Bucshon, said his candidate's campaign had no specific comment on the ads.

"We have seen them on TV, just like everybody else," he said. "We're not allowed legally to coordinate with any independent expenditures, so we really don't know anything about them."

Independent organizations that spend money supporting or opposing a political candidate may not affiliate themselves with official campaigns. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in January that corporations have the right to spend unlimited amounts on political ads leading up to elections, but they must still disclose their spending. Watchdog groups say organizations such as Americans for Job Security shield corporate donors from disclosure by setting themselves up as tax-exempt operations, which don't have to reveal their donors as long as donations are not earmarked for specific ad campaigns in a pre-election period.

The nonprofit Sunlight Foundation Reporting Group is compiling a database of such independent expenditures as they are reported to the FEC.

"The problem with independent expenditures (by parties or outside groups) is that they make it difficult for the public to determine who is financing the ads and how to hold the candidates accountable," said Thomas Mann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, via e-mail.

A recent New York Times article focused on the operations of Americans For Job Security, which is organized as a 501(c)(6) business league and raises its money largely through membership dues. According to its website, it has more than 1,000 members and has spent almost $60 million on issue advocacy and grassroots lobbying.

UPDATE: On Oct. 8, the National Republican Congressional Committee filed more than $87,000 in expenditures against Trent Van Haaften, the Democratic candidate for Indiana's 8th District. The money brings the total of independent expenditures against Van Haaften to more than $550,000, with the bulk of the remaining money being spent by Americans for Job Security.

The NRCC released 29 new ads Monday opposing Democrats, including Van Haaften.

The Federal Election Commission has recorded about $16,000 in outside expenditures in support of Van Haaften's opponent, Larry Bucshon, and no expenditures against him. No outside money has been spent in support of Van Haaften.