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Campaign ad spending nears record

BY BORYS KRAWCZENIUK

A flood of money from outside groups combined with a full slate of competitive state and local races makes it probable the 2010 election campaign shattered what once looked like an untouchable record for spending on political advertising on local television channels.

With the final figures for many campaigns still uncounted, 60 candidates, issues groups and political party campaign arms have combined to spend more than $18.1 million on more than 65,000 commercials, according to records at local stations and Comcast Corp.

The amount is about what Ichiro Suzuki earned playing baseball for the Seattle Mariners this year, 640 times the average cost of a new car and 432 times the median Lackawanna County household income. Someone who sat down to watch all those commercials would need more than three weeks to do it, though many ads aired many times.

The totals do not yet reflect the final week of spending by the candidates for governor and U.S. Senate and many other groups, which could not be compiled in time for this story.

The record of almost $20.9 million and more than 109,000 commercials was set in 2008 when Barack Obama ran for president and spent more than $3.9 million himself on local television alone. That year, nine candidates and political party-related committees of the 45 that bought air time spent more than $1 million. A total of 24 groups spent more than $100,000.

This year, only four candidates or groups, based on the figures counted to date, have exceeded $1 million, but others are likely to exceed that amount in the final count, and 33 have spent more than $100,000.

The commercials aired before and after the passage of the nation’s health care reform law, leading up to the May 18 primary election and in the months before the election Tuesday.

A big difference between 2008 and 2010 was the number of candidates who sought office. In 2008, there were 18 who spent money on television compared to 28 in 2010. Unlike 2008, all the candidates this year have competition, which spurred spending.

In all, the 28 candidates spent more than $8.8 million, 49 percent of the total, on more than 39,600 ads.

Republican congressional candidates Lou Barletta and Tom Marino and incumbent Democratic U.S. Reps. Paul E. Kanjorski and Chris Carney received help from their parties’ political arms, more than $3.9 million in all, or 21.5 percent of the total.

In 2008, the 18 candidates spent more than $12.1 million, but that figure was skewed by the more than $3.9 million Mr. Obama spent. When his total is subtracted, the remaining 17 candidates spent only more than $8.2 million, or less than was spent this year.

The outside groups were an even bigger factor than 2008 when they spent more than $2.8 million, or about 13.8 percent of the total. This year, they spent more than $5.3 million, or 30 percent of the total.

The groups include some that stirred controversy this year because they are organized under Internal Revenue Service rules as 501 (c) (4) nonprofit groups – named for the section of the IRS code that covers them – that do not have to disclose donors. The nonprofit groups that advertised in Pennsylvania, locally or statewide, included Americans for Prosperity, American Future Fund, Citizens United, Center for Individual Freedom, Commission on Hope Growth and Opportunity, Crossroads GPS, the League of American Voters and the 60 Plus Association.

All represent conservative causes.

The 60 Plus Association was especially active in the two congressional contests, spending almost $940,000 on advertising attacking Mr. Kanjorski and Mr. Carney. The Center for Individual Freedom and the Commission on Hope Growth and Opportunity spent almost $200,000 to attack Mr. Kanjorski.

In the days around the March health care vote, Amercans for Prosperity, the American Future Fund, Citizens United and the League of American Voters all weighed in trying to convince Mr. Kanjorski and Mr. Carney to vote against the bill. They voted in favor.

Citizens United was at the heart of a historic 5-to-4 Supreme Court ruling that overturned a century-old federal law prohibiting corporations and unions from contributing to political campaigns.

The court’s majority, made up of its most conservative justices, said the ban on corporate and union giving violated the First Amendment right to free speech while the minority of the court’s more liberal members said the ruling would allow corporate money to inundate political campaigns and ruin democracy.

Conservatives argue unions also benefit from the ruling, which did not change the rules on disclosure. Disclosure was not required before the ruling either, they say.

The ruling came eight years after the establishment of new restrictions on campaign financing by the McCain-Feingold reform law.

“The Supreme Court decision has not only been a major blow against our campaign finance reform achievements, allowing for all this new money to flow into elections and – I want to emphasize – breaking all previous records,” said Craig Holman, the legislative lobbyist for Public Citizen, the watchdog group. “But it’s also resulted in most of that money being undisclosed.”

Although 501 (c) (4) groups did not have to disclose their contributions before the ruling, they did not have unfettered access to corporate and union donors either. “It’s essentially secret slush funds going to these outside groups.

“These outside groups are … already spending twice as much as outside groups spent in the 2008 election, which was a presidential election,” Mr. Holman said. “I’m expecting three times or four times in what was spent by outside groups by the time we finally get through the election. It’s startling. And most of that money is entirely undisclosed.”

Contact the writer: bkrawczeniuk @timesshamrock.comCampaign advertising

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