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2010 Midterms Will Be Most Expensive In History With More Than $1 Billion In Play

July 12th 2010

Economy - Money Money Money

More than $1 billion has already been spent on the 2010 battle for Congress, which is expected to be the most expensive midterm election in history.

Interest groups riled up by the Obama administration's far-reaching legislative agenda of healthcare and Wall Street reform are pledging massive expenditures. Democratic strategists have been circulating a four-page memo that chronicles how Republican-leaning independent groups are set to spent $301.5 million this cycle.

Rich candidates are also fueling the political spending spree. Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina (R) has already funneled $5.5 million from her personal fortune into her Senate campaign and in Florida billionaire Jeff Greene (D) is expected to do the same in his race for the Democratic Senate nomination.

“We fully expect this will be the most expensive midterm election ever in U.S. history,” said Dave Levinthal, a spokesman for the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP). “Not only do we expect it to exceed the high water mark set in 2006, but this could very well obliterate that number when all is said and done.”

The 2006 midterms, which gave Democrats back control of the House and Senate, cost more than $2.8 billion, according to CRP estimates.

More than $1 billion has been spent on campaigning so far and the group estimates the 2010 elections will cost some $3.7 billion. Their estimate includes spending by Senate and House candidates, political parties, so-called 527 groups and independent expenditures on advertising and get-out-the-vote efforts by political action committees. And that number could climb.

“We wouldn’t be surprised at all if this is a $4 billion-plus election, particularly because of the Citizens United decision in January,” Levinthal said, citing the Supreme Court ruling that reversed the ban on independent expenditures by corporations and unions.

“Nobody has any good idea at this point come September, October, how much money companies and trade associations and unions are going to be pouring into television advertisements or radio advertisements now that they are allowed to spend unlimited sums directly from their treasury to advocate for or against any particular candidate,” he said.

The House recently has passed the Disclose Act, which could again restrict corporate and union spending, but it’s not clear if it will become law before the November vote.

This increase in political spending is more notable, Levinthal added, because it comes at a time when the country is reeling from a bad economy and rampant unemployment. “Comparatively, the 2006 election cycle was a time of economic milk and honey,” he said, noting there’s been a 30 percent increase in spending in the last four years. “There’s really no recession in politics.”

Much of the money is being driven by Congress's ambitious agenda. In the last 18 months, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) have tackled Wall Street reform, healthcare reform, energy policy and even campaign finance.

“Congress has been very ambitious,” Levinthal said. “The fact of the matter is there are a lot of folks out there who want to put dollars and sense behind their influence efforts and are doing just that.”

The largest expenditure from a Republican-leaning group is expected to be made by the Chamber of Commerce. The influential business group will spend some $75 million this cycle, according to the CRP. A spokesman for the Chamber would not confirm that figure, but noted that this Congress has addressed issues important to its membership. “We have had some of the most important business issues come through this Congress and the Chamber will let voters know where their lawmakers stood on these issues,” said J.P. Fielder, a spokesman for the Chamber.

Political spending increases aren’t confined to one industry or one side of the political spectrum. “It’s across the board, from the very ideological special interest groups to the big industries in finance or energy or healthcare,” said Levinthal. “You’ve got to keep up with the Joneses in politics. And if one side is just bringing to bear every resource that they can, the other side, if they don’t do the same, does so at its own peril.”

Unions and progressive groups are also going to spend big this cycle. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and the AFL-CIO plan to spend close to $100 million on the 2010 election, with most of those funds going to protect incumbents. EMILY’s List, which support pro-abortion-rights female candidates, will spend close to $43 million. In comparison, the Susan B. Anthony List (SBA), an anti-abortion-rights group that supports primarily female candidates, will spent close to $10 million.

Sean J. Miller is a correspondent for the Center for Public Integrity, from where this article was adapted.

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