by Fredreka Schouten, USA TODAY
WASHINGTON -- The ads have hit hard: In one, Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown is slammed as an out-of-touch politician who saddled his state's manufacturers with higher taxes by voting for President Obama's health care law. In another, he is savaged for his "failed record on energy."
The attacks are not coming from his opponent, state Treasurer Josh Mandel, but from a constellation of outside groups. In all, Brown has tallied more than $19 million spent again him - more than three times the amount that third-party groups have pumped into the race on his behalf. And all but roughly $600,000 of the anti-Brown advertising has come from groups, such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Karl Rove-backed Crossroads GPS, that don't have to disclose their donors' identities.
Between June 1 and Sept. 8 alone, third-party groups spent $51.3 million to influence Senate races - compared with $19.8 million spent by such groups in Senate contests two years ago, according to data compiled by the Wesleyan Media Project.
At stake: Control of the U.S. Senate, where Democrats are battling to retain their 53-vote majority, which includes two independents who caucus with their party. Of the 33 seats up for this year, 21 are held by Democrats, 10 by Republicans and two by the independents.
"It used to be that incumbents had the big financial advantage, but outside groups can now drop into a race where they think they can get a candidate more favorable to their interest, propping up a challenger who otherwise wouldn't have the money to compete," said Bill Allison, who tracks political money for the non-partisan Sunlight Foundation.
"Having a pro-business majority in the House and Senate will help economic growth," said Scott Reed, a top political strategist with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which is currently advertising in nine closely contested Senate races. It plans to spend $50 million on presidential and congressional elections by Nov. 6.
There is increasing debate, however, about whether all the spending - much of it on attacks ads -- will resonate with voters. (A Sunlight Foundation tally shows that negative ads, phone calls and mailings made up 87% of the last-minute spending reported to the Federal Election Commission by anonymously funded independent groups.)
The most recent ranking of Senate races by the non-partisan Cook Political Report shows only one Democratic seat likely to fall to Republicans, the contest to replace Nebraska Sen. Ben Nelson. Further complicating hopes of a Republican takeover: Rep. Todd Akin's selection as the GOP challenger to Sen. Claire McCaskill, once considered among the Democrats' most vulnerable freshmen. Top GOP officials withdrew their financial support from Akin after he said women's bodies can prevent pregnancy in cases of "legitimate rape."
Back in January, Jennifer Duffy, the Cook analyst who handicaps Senate races, had given Republicans a 65%-70% chance of winning a Senate majority. Today, those prospects have dropped to between 35% and 40%, she said.
Federal law bars outside groups from coordinating their advertising buys with their favored candidates, so their commercials are outside of the campaign's control and "are never going to be on the same page as the candidate," Duffy said.
"We are going to have a really deep debate about the effectiveness of this money," she said. "It doesn't mean the (outside) spending is completely ineffective, but there's a trust factor because voters don't know who they are."
Brown, who said there has been more money spent against him than any Senate candidate, argued the barrage has had a big impact in a contest where he once held a 17 percentage-point lead only to see it dwindle to a near-tie in August. A Washington Post poll released last week shows him rebounding with a 53-41 lead among likely voters.
"This wouldn't be a race if it weren't for $19 million" in third-party spending, Brown said in a phone interview. "And it's dark money because we don't who it is."
Mandel, a former Marine, was viewed as a rising Republican star when he was recruited to challenge Brown, a freshman ranked by National Journal as among the most liberal lawmakers in the Senate.
Democrats, however, have attacked the 34-year-old as an inexperienced and absentee treasurer, pointing to Mandel's absences from meetings of the state investment board he chairs and his travel last March to Bahamas for a fundraiser and speech to a payday lending group.
In a statement, Mandel spokeswoman Nicole Sizemore said Brown is "running a viciously negative campaign because he is trying to distract from his record of more debt and less jobs." Brown's own ads, she said, steer clear of his votes on behalf of the health care law and the federal stimulus package because they "are hurting Ohio's families and small businesses."
Ryan Hillman, an engineer who lives in Avon, Ohio, is the kind of independent voter targeted by the advertising deluge in the Senate race. He voted for Brown six years ago, but is considering backing Libertarian Gary Johnson in the presidential contest.
Hillman, 28, said the spending is having little impact on him because he tries to avoid commercials - skipping over the ads as he watches The Daily Show and other TV programs on his laptop. Even so, Hillman said he's paying attention to the election and is likely to vote for Brown again, in part, to maintain a balance of power in Congress between the political parties.
"I don't like the idea of turning over the Senate to Republicans since they have so much control of the House," he said. "I don't think anything is going to happen in Washington until both parties start working together."