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AFSCME joins ad-spending fray in Senate races

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A public-employees union made three massive advertising buys Tuesday, suddenly transforming a relatively quiet labor group into a major player in critical Senate races — as well as the presidential election.

The political action committee of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) made a $1 million ad buy in the Wisconsin Senate race opposing Republican Tommy G. Thompson, according to spending records released Thursday.

It spent another $1 million attacking Sen. Dean Heller, Nevada Republican, who was appointed by that state's governor after a resignation and is facing Democratic Rep. Shelley Berkley in a bid for his first full term.

And the union directly spent nearly $1 million more opposing Rep. Denny Rehberg, Montana Republican, who is attempting to unseat first-term Democratic Sen. Jon Tester, with an ad designed to persuade senior citizens that Mr. Rehberg supports privatizing Social Security, amounting to "a gamble" with their retirements.

AFSCME now stands in second place in terms of PAC money spent on political ads since Aug. 1, behind only American Crossroads, the super PAC helmed by Republican operatives including Karl Rove. American Crossroads has spent $6 million on ads.

In third place, with $800,000 in spending, is Majority PAC, the Democratic super PAC that focuses on House races and also draws funding from unions.

Spending by those top three players has dwarfed both parties' House and Senate committees — even the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Outside groups that are not political entities have played a bigger role than ever in 2012 campaigns, and because AFSCME used union funds rather than money in a special political committee, the Montana buy falls in that category.

Among those groups — chiefly secret-money nonprofit organizations — Americans for Prosperity, a conservative group tied to the billionaire industrialist Koch brothers, has dominated at $10 million in advertising, mostly against President Obama. The AFSCME buy places it second in that category, at nearly $3 million, counting the Senate buy in Montana plus $2 million the union has spent opposing Mitt Romney.

Unions have said they lack the monetary resources to compete with Republican super PACs, so they are relying instead on thousands of volunteer workers, who they have dispatched to go knocking door to door. But this marks a shift back into traditional advertising territory.

AFSCME, which did not respond to a request for comment, has a decided interest in fending off politicians who might shrink government: Its 1.6 million members depend on it for their jobs.

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