Liberal and environmental groups that have been dramatically outspent in the 2012 election cycle are nevertheless wielding outsized influence by focusing their campaign cash on down-ballot races that typically see comparatively low levels of spending.
The League of Conservation Voters (LCV) is one such group, quietly emerging as a major player in big-money politics even though many of its signature issues such as global warming have attracted little attention on the campaign trail. The League has spent $7.5 million on advocacy ads this year, enough to rank alongside liberals' traditional money base of unions and abortion activists.
In fact, in House races, the highest-spending independent group since July has been not Americans for Prosperity or the other conservative groups that have dominated the headlines, but the House Majority PAC, a Democratic super PAC funded by unions, New York lawyers and Hollywood celebrities, at $12 million. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce comes in a distant second at $8 million.
LCV officials say their activism is a backlash against a Republican-controlled House that has seen an infusion of tea party lawmakers, some of whom contest the science behind climate change.
"This is the most anti-environmental House in history," LCV Vice President Mike Palamuso said.
The group has targeted five representatives with what it calls "extreme anti-science positions," such as Rep. Dan Benishek, Michigan Republican, who has said that climate change is "all baloney." LCV has spent $600,000 attacking Rep. Francisco "Quico" Canseco, Texas Republican, a member of what it is dubbing the "Flat Earth Five."
"The House is tough because there are so many races," but it is also easier to have an impact in one than in a Senate race, "so we're putting our marker down on trying to beat five House incumbents," Mr. Palamuso said.
LCV is going up against conservative nonprofits that have dominated the election cycle without revealing their donors under newly relaxed campaign finance regulations.
Like the Chamber of Commerce, Americans for Prosperity and other nonprofits, LCV does not disclose its donors, but it has historically not accepted money directly from unions or corporations. Records show it has received funding from foundations such as the Sea Change Foundation and Green Change.
SUB Small races, big impact
The new regulations have allowed corporate-backed nonprofits to heavily outspend liberal groups, with nonprofits spending $60 million opposing President Obama, and only $2 million, from pro-choice groups, opposing GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
By that metric, expenditures at the scale of the Texas House race are a drop in an ocean. But unlike the hundreds of millions of dollars raised by the two presidential campaigns, Mr. Canseco and his opponent, Democrat Pete Gallego, each raised only a half-million dollars last quarter.
The $1.1 million that outside groups spent on ads in the race during that time was enough to alter the race's balance of power, and the LCV money gave Mr. Gallego an advantage that was equal to his opponent's entire haul in this district, which spans two time zones and four media markets.
Democratic House candidates are not the only ones benefiting from targeted outside spending.
In New Hampshire, one conservative nonprofit alone, the American Action Network, spent more than the Democratic candidate, former Rep. Carol Shea-Porter, raised last quarter to advocate the Democrat's defeat.
And the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the nation's biggest business lobby, spent $600,000 opposing Jose Hernandez, a Democratic candidate in California, on top of "a $1.8 million commitment from the American Action Network," campaign manager Dan Krupnick said.
In Mr. Hernandez's corner was only the House Majority PAC, at $475,000 -- plus, as if to highlight the relative scarcity of funds, a mere $10 from the Sierra Club.
"These people come in and throw bombs and they try to see what sticks," Mr. Krupnick said.
In Ohio, where redistricting has brought a rare race between two incumbents, outside groups have spent well over twice what Reps. James B. Renacci, Republican, and Betty Sutton, Democrat, have spent, thanks largely to $1.3 million from the AFL-CIO and $500,000 from the Service Employees International Union.
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