WASHINGTON — Big money is changing how congressional races are being run this year, but it's not clear how much difference it'll make.
Independent groups, often run by hard-edged partisans who are hard to identify, are pumping hundreds of millions of dollars into political campaigns, and as a result candidates are devoting more time to attacking and responding to opponents, and less time to talking about issues. Some cash-strapped challengers - usually Republicans - suddenly have enough financial backing to compete against powerful incumbents.
Will it matter? Will it give one side a big advantage? Is our democracy being bought by big spenders?
"We're starting with a blank slate," said Meredith McGehee, policy director at the Campaign Legal Center, an independent group that studies money in politics. "We all have to step back and say all the old rules and expectations [about the influence of money] may not apply any more. We don't know what this will eventually mean."
Ruling changes things
The barrage of money was triggered in January by the Supreme Court's ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, a case that flung open the doors for corporate and union treasuries to spend freely to push their favorite candidates.
The Center for Public Integrity, a nonpartisan research group, estimates that independent groups will spend more than $500 million across the country this year to help candidates, with Republican-allied organizations likely to have at least a 3-to-2 spending edge. In 2006, the last nonpresidential federal election year, such groups spent about $300 million.
The court decision already has had an effect as the spending deluge has helped often-obscure challengers gain recognition, pay for advertising and put manpower on the ground.
In the Nevada Senate race, for instance, independent groups had spent at least $4.2 million through early October to oppose Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat, and support his Republican rival, Sharron Angle, according to data from the Federal Election Commission and the Committee for Responsive Politics, an independent research group.
Despite the ad and money blitz, Reid and Angle have been in a virtual tie for weeks.
No one knows how much the money will matter. Campaign 2010 is uncharted territory, and experts are watching money's influence on a variety of fronts:
How much it boosts challengers. "It matters where candidates otherwise don't have the ability to be competitive," said David Wasserman, House of Representatives analyst for the independent Cook Political Report.
In Pennsylvania's 10th congressional district, Republican Tom Marino had raised $232,000 as of June 30, while incumbent Rep. Chris Carney, a Democrat, had raised $1.17 million. Marino, however, has been aided by about $800,000 in independent expenditures, according to Center for Responsive Politics data. Carney had a slim lead in the latest Lycoming College poll, released last week.
How much it makes incumbents seem like victims. 2010 is a bad year for incumbents, but if they're subjected to an ad barrage by outside interests - particularly those with close ties to Washington - they may be able to turn it in their favor.
In Arkansas, a coalition of liberals and unions tried to topple Sen. Blanche Lincoln, a two-term Democrat, in the primary. In the general election, conservative outside groups have spent nearly $2.7 million to defeat her.
Lincoln, who has been helped by about $725,000 from independent groups, is fighting back with an ad where she stands in a bucolic scene and says, "A few months ago, the Washington unions attacked me for being too conservative."
Whether candidates can make money the issue. Democrats, led by President Barack Obama, are gleefully reminding voters that they're being outraised and outspent.
Democratic National Committee Chairman Tim Kaine likes to rail about "the efforts of special interests to subvert the American electoral process though massive undisclosed political donations and the concurrent efforts of Republican partisans to leverage those donations to their own advantage."
Republicans counter that money from independent groups is simply the grassroots citizenry expressing itself. Because most unions strongly support Democrats, GOP spokesmen maintain, Democrats have an edge in manpower, if not money.
"We've always been at a disadvantage," said Republican Party spokesman Doug Heye.
How much the money affects turnout. "When there is no overriding issue, the tit-for-tat of attack ads depresses turnout," said Curtis Gans, the director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, which studies voter turnout.
However, this year's politics are dominated by the aftershocks of the biggest recession in more than 70 years, and in years when there are big issues, turnout is usually up.
At this point, Gans said, it's hard to gauge whether money will affect turnout. "I find it all very complex," he said.