In just the past seven weeks, nonparty groups have spent at least $100 million on ads and get-out-the-vote efforts supporting or opposing specific candidates in state and local races, according to a state-by-state review by The Associated Press. The actual total is probably millions higher because there is no way to find out exactly how much was spent.
In California, mass mailings went out to voters in local sanitation district races from an arm of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees in Los Angeles, District Council 36. In Iowa, the Everyday America PAC has been financing automated phone calls urging voters to remove three state Supreme Court justices and two Polk County judges for allowing gay marriage.
And in the Southwest, the Drug Policy Action Fund for New Mexico is airing a TV ad against the Republican nominee for governor, Susana Martinez, because she wants to repeal the state's medical marijuana law.
Interest groups are seeking to influence voters' choices in all 50 states, yet they often reveal little publicly about the money they're spending, including the source.
Nationally, campaign finance laws are a long way from requiring full disclosure about such spending, the AP review found. Only about half the states impose some type of pre-election reporting by purchasers of special-interest political ads and then post the information for voters to find easily online. In congressional races, groups whose ads are targeting specific candidates close to elections must report the spending but do not always have to disclose their donors.
The Supreme Court made much of the air war possible in its ruling this year that corporations - and by extension unions, interest groups and individuals - can spend unlimited amounts of money airing ads saying pretty much anything they want about politicians at any time, including right up to Election Day.
The court struck down federal and state laws that banned or limited such spending close to elections, and interest groups old and new are taking full advantage:
In California, no race is too big or small. U.S. contests including Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer's re-election bid against Republican Carly Fiorina attracted at least $9.2 million in the seven weeks since Labor Day, according to AP's analysis of Federal Election Commission data. Yet outside groups there also spent more than $40 million on state and local races during that period, much of it on ads and get-out-the-vote efforts in the governor's race between Democrat Jerry Brown and Republican Meg Whitman, according to state reports analyzed by AP.
Outside money is flowing to lower-profile elections, including those for state insurance commissioner, superintendent of public instruction, the Legislature and local offices such as city council and school board. The Ventura County Deputy Sheriffs' Association PAC is spending to back a candidate for local treasurer. The Sacramento Building Trades PAC is among groups using its money to influence city council races.
In Wisconsin, a union-financed group that received at least $1 million in seed money from outgoing Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle's campaign was airing a TV ad accusing Republican nominee Scott Walker of threatening to cut people from the state's health care program, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported. As a replica of a smart phone appears on the screen, a narrator asks: "Don't you wish there was an app that told you when politicians were lying?"
Colorado, where Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet faces Republican Ken Buck in a tight race, drew at least $20 million in interest-group spending in the seven weeks after Labor Day, the traditional kickoff of the fall campaign.
Voters there saw or heard at least $17 million in ads by a variety of groups. They included the Republican-leaning U.S. Chamber of Commerce business lobby and American Crossroads, which was formed with help from former President George W. Bush's top political strategist, Karl Rove. There also were ads aired by pro-Democratic labor groups, including the National Educational Association Advocacy Fund and the American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees' PEOPLE political action committee.
Interest groups have spent at least $412,000 since Labor Day on ads in Vermont's governor's race. For example, the Green Mountain Prosperity PAC disclosed spending at least $315,000 in ads supporting Republican nominee Brian Dubie, while the Planned Parenthood of Northern New England Action Fund spent at least $83,000 on ads backing his Democratic rival, Peter Shumlin.
The State Employees Association of North Carolina's political committee spent at least $50,000 on a radio ad against Assembly Majority Leader Hugh Holliman, blaming him for mismanagement of the state employee health care plan, The News & Observer in Raleigh reported. Holliman is in a close race against Republican Rayne Brown.
In Ohio, Cincinnati billionaire Carl Lindner gave at least $400,000 to American Crossroads, which has spent at least $714,000 on TV ads backing Republican U.S. Senate candidate Rob Portman, The Columbus Dispatch reported.
Ohio's congressional races have drawn at least $9.2 million from nonparty groups in recent weeks. Top spenders include the National Rifle Association's Political Victory Fund, the NEA Fund for Children and Public Education, the Service Employees International Union's political arm, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Service Employees International Union Committee on Political Education and the pro-Republican American Action Network.
Business and Republican-oriented groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and American Crossroads have attracted media attention nationally for pouring millions into TV ads in races across the country where Democrats are targeted. Overall, outside groups' ads in congressional races have drawn at least $154 million in spending since Labor Day.
But as the election nears, interest groups are also trying to reach voters in other, less visible ways, including phone calls, mailings and door-to-door visits. Nonparty groups had devoted at least $27 million to that ground game from Labor Day to the week before the election. An additional $4 million that outside groups spent targeting congressional candidates wasn't described in enough detail to determine whether it was for ads, get-out-the-vote activities or other types of spending.
The sole congressional races in Montana and Wyoming have attracted attention from the pro-hunting group Safari Club International, whose political action committee spent at least $18,705 on mailings supporting Republican Rep. Dennis Rehberg in Montana and at least $7,883 on mailings backing Republican Rep. Cynthia Lummis in Wyoming.
Then there's the effort by the conservative Everyday America PAC, based in West Des Moines, to remove judges, as reported by The Des Moines Register.
"Judges changing our laws must not be allowed to remain in power," a voice says in automated phone calls. The state Supreme Court ruled last year that same-sex marriage was legal in Iowa.
One of the two county judges targeted, Scott Rosenberg, found one of the calls on his home answering machine, and told the Register his wife was upset when she heard it. "We don't start these cases," Rosenberg told the newspaper. "To say that we're 'activist judges' is wrong."