Posted Online: Sept. 30, 2012, 11:32 pm

Outside spending up: Groups shell out $2.5M; more to come

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By Eric Timmons,

Spending by outside groups in the 17th Congressional District race has hit $2.5 million, making the district the eighth most expensive in the nation this year in terms of independent expenditures, with more than a month left until Election Day.

Ohio's 16th District tops the list with independent expenditures of $4.2 million reported by the Federal Election Commission (FEC) on Friday. Two incumbents, Republican Rep. Jim Renacci and Democratic Rep. Betty Sutton, were forced to run against each other this year in Ohio's 16th after the state lost two congressional seats.

In the 2010 election cycle, independent expenditures in the 17th District reached $3.79 million. But all of that money was spent in October, and November. Spending started much earlier this year, and, if it continues at a similar pace through October it easily will surpass outside spending in the last election.

The $2.5 million spent by independent groups in the 17th District shows the importance placed on this year's race by Democrats and Republicans at the national level.

U.S. Rep. Bobby Schilling, R-Colona, bucked historical trends to win the seat in 2010 and now Democrats are hoping Cheri Bustos can put the district back under their control.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) and the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) are both spending big on advertising across the district, which runs from Freeport in the north to Peoria in the south.

The NRCC has spent just over $1 million so far, according to the FEC, while the DCCC has spent $755,000. Both numbers likely are to increase in the coming weeks.

As of Friday, total independent spending by groups supporting Ms. Bustos is close to $1.4 million with Republican groups spending about $1.1 million.

The Democratic-aligned House Majority Political Action Committee, a super PAC that can take unlimited contributions from wealthy individuals, has spent $423,000 on the 17th District race, mainly on advertising. A major contributor to the House Majority PAC is billionaire investor George Soros, the liberal equivalent of casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, who has given millions to Republican groups.

Republican super PACs are yet to engage in the 17th District congressional race, with the exception of the Chicago-based New Prosperity Foundation, which spent the relatively small sum of $60,000 on TV advertising in August.

So-called "dark money" groups, the nonprofit organizations that don't have to reveal their donors, have kept out of the race so far.

Outside spending is money spent independent of the two campaigns by national party organizations, political action committees and other groups and is not supposed to be used in coordination with the campaigns of Rep. Schilling or Ms. Bustos.

Most of the money in the 17th District is being spent on advertising. Ads paid for by the campaigns themselves generally tend to be more moderate in tone than those run by outside groups, and that has been the case in the 17th District.

The NRCC has run two TV commercials that focused on a water main project in East Moline on a street close to where Ms. Bustos lives. The NRCC ads portray the $625,000 project as an example of wasteful spending that personally benefited Ms. Bustos, a former East Moline alderwoman.

But the the first portion of the project started before she was elected to East Moline's City Council and the second part was passed unanimously by the council. The ads also point out that 10th Street, where the project was undertaken, runs to Short Hills Country Club, of which Ms. Bustos is not a member.

"Everything in that ad was factually correct," said Katie Prill, an NRCC spokeswoman.

Western Illinois University political science professor Keith Boeckelman said negative ads like those run by the NRCC can depress turnout and that's something that could suit Republicans in the 17th District, which leans Democratic.

"Negative ads don't necessarily change minds but they tend to depress turnout by turning people off," he said. "The most informed voters have already made up their minds, but these ads target the least informed (and challenge them) to sort through them to get to the facts."

Democratic groups also have run negative ads in the 17th District.

The House Majority PAC released a new attack against Schilling last week.

The ad flashes newspaper headlines about the plan by Sensata Technologies to close its Freeport plant and send 170 jobs to China as the narrator says, "Thanks to Congressman Schilling, doors are opening for China, while they are closing here at home."

Democrats have been using the plight of the Freeport workers to attack Rep. Schilling. But it's difficult to see how he could be held personally responsible for the fate of an individual plant when waves of outsourcing have been shrinking U.S. manufacturing for decades.

Beyond advertising, outside groups in the 17th District also are engaging in traditional forms of voter contact like sending out mailers, phone banking and going door to door.

Mr. Boeckelman said the "ground game" could be more valuable in the 17th District than advertising.

"The conventional political science wisdom is that the ground game is more important," he said. "Republicans perfected it but seem to have moved away from it -- which is surprising -- but Democrats seem to be moving toward it more."

Many voters will escape the tidal wave of TV advertising that will fill airtime between now and the election, but outside groups will hope to reach them using other tactics.

A poll conducted earlier this year by Public Opinion Strategies and SEA Polling found that close to one-third of likely voters nationwide had not watched live TV in the week before they were surveyed. The survey also found that 45 percent said live TV was not their primary mode of consuming video. A further 40 percent of likely voters own devices that allow them to record TV shows, allowing the majority to skip commercials altogether.

The DCCC has an office in Rock Island and already has been knocking on doors in the district, running phone banks and signing up voters who plan to vote early, said Haley Morris, the DCCC Midwest press secretary.

The Service Employees International Union's super PAC, SEIU PEA Federal, has spent $106,000 on canvassing services in support of Ms. Bustos. SEIU Cope, the SEIU's regular PAC, also has spent just under $94,000 on TV commercials and production, according to FEC reports.

An SEIU spokesman in Washington, D.C., said the union usually doesn't divulge details of its campaign tactics.

On the GOP side, the Illinois Republican Party is paying to run a "victory center" in East Moline in the same building as Rep. Schilling's campaign headquarters.

The victory center has made 150,000 calls to likely voters in the 17th District and volunteers have knocked on about 12,000 doors, according to a spokesman.

With less than six weeks until the election, the 17th District is the most expensive congressional race in Illinois in terms of independent expenditures, but the full scale of spending on congressional races won't be clear until after the election.

In Iowa's 2nd District, where U.S. Rep. Dave Loebsack, D-Mount Vernon, is being challenged by Republican John Archer, independent expenditures reached just $408,000 by Friday, well below the $2.5 million spent in the 17th District.

Top 10 in outside spending

The top 10 congressional district races in terms of outside spending:

1. Ohio 16th: $4.2 million
2. California 7th: $3.9 million
3. Pennsylvannia 12th: $3.6 million
4. Minnesota 8th: $3.4 million
5. North Carolina 7th: $3 million
6. North Carolina 8th: $2.6 million
7. Texas 23rd: $2.6 million
8. Illinois 17th: $2.5 million
9. Arizona 8th: $2.2 million
10. New York 26th: $2.1 million

Source: Federal Election Commission