An unlikely combatant has jumped into the big-money battle between independent groups running ads weighing in on the Republican presidential primary: a national union representing public employees. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) spent $1 million Friday on an ad accusing former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney of greed, Federal Election Commission records show.
The liberal group’s intent is to sway the outcome of the Republican primary in Florida, with ads running there before the state’s party elections Jan. 31. The strategy seems to indicate that the union views Mr. Romney as the most realistic threat to President Obama and would much prefer to see Republicans field another candidate, such as former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, against Mr. Obama in the general election.
The piling-on of a liberal group on top of the Republican organizations attacking Mr. Romney highlights an irony to the 2010 Supreme Court decision that injected massive independent expenditures into politics with a ruling cheered by many conservatives: The majority of the spending thus far has been used to demonize Republicans.
When the high court held that long-standing rules barring unlimited political contributions deprived unions and corporations of free speech, it may have envisioned broad ideological spending: pro-Democratic advocacy from unions, pro-Republican spending from corporations. The existing groups, which are more likely to have only generic policy agendas, are unlikely to risk alienating members by choosing a candidate early in a nominating process and running blistering ads against his same-party opponents.
Instead of the ruling providing long-standing components of the American landscape with the ability to advocate politically, nearly all spending has come from bare-bones groups that sprout up for no purpose other than to collect and spend money to oppose or support a single candidate. Groups with such a narrow focus that they are tantamount to adjunct campaign committees — a person can donate up to $2,300 per election to a specific campaign — have created scorched-earth intraparty battles.
The result has been a presidential primary season in which million-dollar ad buys in a single day have become commonplace from super PACs created to support Mr. Romney or his rivals, more recently Mr. Gingrich, and funded by a few wealthy supporters.
“I’m not at all surprised that that’s how it has evolved given the latitude that exists. It’s a surprise only to the degree that people are shocked how loose the coordination rules are,” with top aides to Mr. Romney and Mr. Gingrich cutting ties to the campaigns and starting their own organizations with identical purposes, said Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics.
In the absence of clear guidelines from regulators, the limits of the ruling’s scope have been pushed repeatedly.
Now, in addition to the Republican ads comes the union’s buy, by far the largest from a Democratic-leaning group. AFSCME did not return a call for comment.
The large-scale, full-frontal meddling in an opposing party’s primary is rare. The most recent prominent example may be the expenditure that triggered a series of court rulings dramatically expanding the ability of outside groups including corporations to spend on politics: In the Supreme Court case bearing its name, the conservative group Citizens United sought to air a biting, lengthy attack on Hillary Rodham Clinton in the days before she appeared on ballots as a Democratic presidential candidate facing off against Mr. Obama.
Although that film was fueled by genuine opposition to Mrs. Clinton, the AFSCME ad could be an attempt by a liberal group to push Republicans further to the right as part of a forward-thinking strategy.
Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul said, “The last thing the White House wants is Mitt Romney as an opponent, which explains their all-hands-on-deck approach for their strategy to ‘kill Romney.’ “
AFSCME offered an early endorsement of Mrs. Clinton in October 2007 before pumping $2 million into ads supporting Mr. Obama after he received the Democratic nomination. Because their money is raised in small amounts, unions were able to run their own ads before the Supreme Court ruling, but could not contribute to other political groups.
As Republicans and Democrats focus their fire on individual Republican candidates, there has been virtually no anti-Obama mobilization from the generic Republican groups, though the traditional conservative and liberal spending from broadly ideological groups is sure to explode closer to the nominating convention.
In the few cases when liberal groups have activated in the presidential race, it has been to attack Mr. Romney.
A Democratic super PAC called Priorities USA Action and run by Bill Burton, a former top aide to Mr. Obama, is waiting in the wings with unknown millions of dollars in cash, but has made no buys at that scale of the union, spending a total of $200,000. Liberal powerhouse MoveOn.org has spent a puny $23,000 attacking Mr. Romney.
With conservatives fighting among themselves, the two groups likely to emerge as counterweights to Priorities USA in the general election, FreedomWorks and American Crossroads, have spent less than $120,000 and $50,000, respectively, on anti-Obama ads.
FreedomWorks also spent a similar amount on a “Retire Orrin Hatch” campaign, advocating the defeat of a Republican senator from Utah in the primary. The group would like to see him replaced with a more conservative challenger.
A few others have run an additional $270,000 worth of ads opposing Mr. Obama, but a large number of the minor groups appear to be using dislike of the president to spur easy donations rather than mount serious efforts at shifting public opinion. Among the additional groups are the Tea Party Express and the Campaign to Defeat Barack Obama, which originally misspelled the name of the president.
Also among them are Freedom’s Defense Fund and Declaration Alliance, both of which harness ire at the president to appeal to a set of small donors culled from a list tied to fringe presidential candidate Alan Keyes, and which The Washington Times has reported spent little on actual causes.
Meanwhile, of the entities driving the narrative, a super PAC supporting Mr. Gingrich has spent $3 million putting down Mr. Romney. One supporting Mr. Romney, Restore Our Future, has spent $400,000 attacking former Sen. Rick Santorum.
The biggest victim of the repeal on the ban on unlimited corporate and union money has been Mr. Gingrich. The PAC formed specifically to spend money to ensure Mr. Romney’s election has spent $10 million attacking the former House speaker.
That may be precisely what AFSCME intends to buy with its $1 million: a few more months of hotly contested Republican primaries in which groups aligned with the candidates will spend many times that amount savaging one another.