Anyone unconvinced that the post-Citizens United campaign finance regime has fundamentally changed the game need look no further than Ohio, where millions from outside groups have eroded Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown’s once-formidable lead and turned the race into a possible pickup opportunity for Republicans.
The race, in the key battleground state, was always expected to be competitive and attract national interest, but big conservative money has poured in faster than anticipated. Back in March, Brown was up by 16 points over his relatively inexperienced Republican challenger Josh Mandel, the state’s 34-year-old treasurer. The latest poll, from Rasmussen Reports on May 29, shows Brown with a lead of just 5 points.
In the intervening months, a parade of deep-pocketed conservative groups have launched a sustained air campaign, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Karl Rove’s dark money group Crossroads GPS. While the money is difficult to track because much of it doesn't need to be reported to the FEC, Roll Call estimated in late May that $6.5 million had been spent by outside groups attacking Brown, with just $1.1 million from allies defending him. Brown’s campaign says that first number will surpass $7.5 million by the end of this week. Some of that erosion likely comes from Mandel’s increasing name recognition in the state as well, where Brown has been in office for decades and has statewide recognition.
Sitting down at a cafe this weekend at Netroots Nation in Providence, R.I., Brown sounded a bit frustrated. “The money concerns me,” he said. His communications director handed me a fact sheet titled “Sherrod Brown is the number one target of secretly funded special interest groups.” Clearly, this is on their minds. “When you’re outspokenly progressive ... you expect this kind of money,” he said, before pausing to clarify: “I mean, I don’t know if I expected $7 million, but I expected a lot.”
Brown says the groups target him because they view him as a threat. He ticked off a list of battles he fought with big corporations, including his effort to break up the biggest banks, his authorship of healthcare reform’s public option, and his fights against outsourcing and trade deals. His state has also likely been targeted because it represents a good opportunity for Republicans to win another Senate seat, and because the money they spend against Brown can do double duty, hurting President Obama in the critical electoral state.
The 60 Plus Association, which bills itself as a conservative response to the AARP, is running a $1 million campaign in the state right now. The Chamber of Commerce has already spent about $3.8 million on the race, while Crossroads GPS, the 501(c)4 arm of the Rove empire that keeps its donors secret, has poured in about $800,000 to target Brown, plus an additional $2 million for the presidential race in Ohio. Tea Party group FreedomWorks and the pro-life National Right to Life have made smaller buys.
Brown has had his outside help as well. Majority PAC, a group run by allies of the Democratic Senate leadership, has spent almost $1 million, while the SEIU has dropped about $230,000. But the liberal groups can’t compete with the conservative money, which is outpacing them 6-to-1. Still, Brown’s campaign itself has a big fundraising lead over Mandel’s campaign.
“They’re clearly orchestrated and coordinated,” Brown said. “I can’t prove it, but I’m fairly certain,” he explained, pointing to the timing of the six outside groups that have dropped money in the race so far. “I don’t believe that they’ve ever overlapped with another. So Concerned Women of America will come in, then Pat Boone and the 60 Plus will come in, then the Chamber of Commerce, then Crossroads, then some other organization. I mean, they’re just one after another,” he said.
Asked if voters understood the situation and would give him a break, he said he wasn’t sure. “I think this assault, this $7 million in attack ads, has broadly annoyed and disgusted the electorate,” he said. “While they clearly don’t think that much about politics this early, it’s clearly had a corrosive impact on my standing. … In that way it’s hurt us.”
What’s it like to be the target of millions of dollars of nasty ads? “I don’t really watch the ads unless I’m watching an Indians game and they come on. I think it’s harder on somebody’s friends and family than it is on the candidate.”