WASHINGTON — If some of this election’s mega-donors are asking for their money back, it’s no wonder.
Outside groups funded by well-heeled donors in both parties spent more than $50 million on Ohio’s U.S. Senate race — with most of it going to pay for blistering attack ads against the Democrat, Sen. Sherrod Brown.
The impact? Brown, who was ahead in the polls against his GOP challenger Josh Mandel before a penny had been spent, won the contest handily on election night.
“A lot of groups spent a lot of money and got bupkis for it,” said Kathy Kiely, managing editor for reporting at the Sunlight Foundation, a nonpartisan good-government group that analyzed the impact of the outside spending on the 2012 election.
The foundation’s conclusion, in part: “Turns out some of the smart money wasn’t so smart after all.”
But while Brown’s victory makes the money spent by conservative groups look like a waste, Kiely and others note the outside spending in the Ohio Senate contest wasn’t limited to GOP-leaning groups. At least 10 outside groups spent a combined $13 million on Brown’s behalf, according to the Sunlight Foundation’s data.
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, for example, poured $5.4 million into the race, with much of that paying for ads blasting Mandel. The Service Employees International Union spent $1.3 million to bolster Brown, and the National Education Association’s political committee put in another $1 million.
“There were plenty of big check writers in this race,” Kiely noted. “It’s not like all the outside money there went for naught.”
Mandel’s spokesman, Travis Considine, did not return calls for comment. But Robert Bennett, chairman of the Ohio Republican Party, said he thought the outside spending had “a huge impact on both sides.”
He said the GOP super PAC money helped make Mandel a more competitive candidate. And if the Democratic groups hadn’t entered the fray, “Sherrod Brown would be toast today.”
For Brown, the outside money — at least the money targeting him for defeat — became a major element of the race.
“Ultimately, this race was about that $40 million,” Brown said at a post-election news conference on Wednesday. “(But) it did not detract from our message of how do you stand up for the middle class.”
In fact, it actually fed into Brown’s message — that he was a fighter willing to stand up for the little guy against corporate interests. In the final weeks of the campaign, Brown and his campaign aides repeatedly gave reporters the latest tally of outside spending by GOP groups.
“It’s the oil companies that want to beat me. It’s the big drug companies that want to beat me. It’s the Wall Street banks, because I stand up for the middle class,” Brown said Tuesday as voters went to the polls. “And those companies want a very different America from what I think the average person (in Ohio wants).”
On election night, his staff passed out placards with a big red line drawn through the $40 million figure.
“This gives him a little flavor of the guy who beat the mountains of money,” said Francis Hill, a law professor at the University of Miami and an expert in spending by outside groups.
There’s little question the spending was lopsided — with Republican-leaning organizations spending about four times as much to defeat Brown as Democratic groups spent to tarnish Mandel.
The biggest players were Crossroads GPS, a group affiliated with GOP strategist Karl Rove that spent about $11 million against Brown. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce spent almost $8 million against Brown. A group called the Government Integrity Fund, a nonprofit that does not have to disclose its donors, spent more than $2 million on spots praising Mandel or attacking Brown.
Justin Barasky, Brown’s campaign spokesman, conceded that the flood of GOP money “reinforced” Brown’s message that he “isn’t beholden to anyone.” But he said it was never a positive force in the race — taking a huge toll on Brown’s standing in the polls and forcing him to spend gobs of money to counter an unrelenting wave of negative ads starting in March 2011.
“For a long time, our internal (polls) showed us up by significant margins and then with about six months to go, all of a sudden our polling showed the race had gotten much tighter,” Barasky said. “It wasn’t because people were falling in love with Josh Mandel. It was because there were five groups spending money against us.”
Barasky said the $40 million “took a second- or third-rate candidate and turned him into a serious contender that we had to worry about the whole campaign.”
Without the outside money, he said, Brown’s 5-percentage-point margin of victory on Tuesday would have been 10 or 12 points, and “the campaign would have had to spend a lot less to win.”
One thing that almost everyone seems to agree on: even if the return on investment was murky or minimal, outside groups aren’t likely to pull back in the next election.
“I wouldn’t bet the ranch that we’re going to see any downturn,” said Kiely.
Brown said he hopes the torrent of money spent in Ohio and elsewhere will spur Congress to pass new campaign finance laws – citing in particular a measure he and other Democrats unsuccessfully pushed last year that would have required independent groups to disclose the names of their high-dollar donors.
“I think it sends a message nationally that we have to fix these awful types of campaign rules,” Brown said.
But Republicans blocked that bill last year and it’s unlikely they will change course.
Hill, the University of Miami professor, said she expected outside groups to flood the next election as much or more as they did this one. But they might get smarter about how they spend their dollars, she said, investing more, for example, in field operations than in TV ads.
“I bet we’re going to have high-dollar campaigns going forward, but I’m not sure these awful ads are going to be the centerpiece of it,” Hill said. “It may be that people want money now to do voter mobilization of the modern, sophisticated kind” that helped President Barack Obama win re-election.
“My overall feeling is that campaigning changed (on Tuesday),” she said. But “we don’t know how yet.”
Paul E. Kostyu contributed to this story.
Written by Deirdre Shesgreen Gannett Washington Bureau –
GANNETT, GO FIGURE??????
What they are saying so far…
Here we have a slew of fat cats complaining about too much taxation (US rates are currently at historically low levels!) and over regulation! That $50 mill could’ve paid the yearly salaries of 15,000 Ohioans! Yes those Koch brothers, Ms Payne! They’d rather attempt to own another stooge in Congress than provide Americans with much needed jobs! They’d prefer to pay fines than dispose of toxic waste properly, as well! Priorities…
Donna Payne · Top Commenter · 713 subscribersThankfully, the people of Ohio also know who else pours money into Crossroads GPS – The Koch brothers. The American people have shown you can’t buy an election if the public is educated. And now, lets hope the old stogies in Congress get to work – otherwise, they’ll be voted out tout de suite!