By Lesley Weidenbener
INDIANAPOLIS – Outside interest groups have spent more than $1.1 million since Labor Day on advertising and other expenses to influence voters in the Indiana Senate race.
Most of the so-called “independent expenditures” have been used either to support Republican Richard Mourdock or to oppose Democrat Joe Donnelly.
Three groups have spent more than $858,000 to help Mourdock win the race. Two organizations have spent more than $300,000 on efforts to help Donnelly.
Robert Schmuhl, professor of American Studies at the University of Notre Dame, said the spending is no surprise given that “every poll since last spring shows the Indiana Senate race on a knife’s edge.”
“Outside groups realize how close the Senate will be between Democrats and Republicans after voting in November, so this is the time to try to have influence in one state’s contest,” Schmuhl said. “My guess is that we’ll continue to see expenditures that underwrite all the ads in Indiana because so much is at stake on the national level.”
The spending data is based on reports filed with the Federal Election Commission through Monday. The reports detail spending by individuals, groups, political committees, corporations or unions that advocate the election or defeat of candidates – although rules prohibit the them from coordinating with the campaigns. They do not include spending by the candidates’ campaign committees.
The independent expenditure reports show that Club for Growth is the big spender in the race this month. That’s no surprise. Club for Growth spent nearly $1.5 million this spring to help Mourdock defeat incumbent Republican Sen. Richard Lugar.
Since Labor Day, the group has spent more than $792,000 on television advertising to oppose Donnelly.
Club for Growth’s newest ad challenges Donnelly’s reputation as an independent or moderate Democrat. It calls him a “typical Washington liberal.”
“Donnelly supported liberal Nancy Pelosi for House speaker,” the ad says. “He voted for the Wall Street bailout, Obama’s failed stimulus, and the government takeover of health care.”
The Donnelly campaign objected to the ad, saying it’s filled with “half-truths” and “misleading information.”
“The same Wall Street-funded special interests that spent wildly destroying Senator Lugar in the primary are now out to smear Joe Donnelly,” said campaign manager Paul Tencher. “Hoosiers are rejecting Richard Mourdock’s ‘my way or the highway’ partisanship, so his Washington allies have hit the panic button.”
The biggest spender this month supporting Donnelly is Center Forward, a group that describes itself as “centrist” and was formerly known as the Blue Dog Research Forum. Earlier this year, the group announced it would run ads in eight House and Senate races supporting three Republicans and five Democrats, including Donnelly.
Last Thursday, the group reported spending $250,000 on television advertising expenses in the Indiana Senate race.
Since the current campaign cycle began last year, independent groups have spent more than $6.6 million on Indiana’s Senate race, according to the Federal Election Commission. Those groups have spent more on Senate races in only three states – Texas, Virginia and Wisconsin.
But the general election spending is only now heating up.
Geoffrey Skelley, a political analyst at the University of Virginia Center for Politics, said the two months between Labor Day and Election Day are “now the home stretch in the lengthier campaign season.”
“Given the race’s competitiveness, it’s only natural that outside groups are now throwing money at the race,” Skelley said. “Now is the time to start running some final attack ads that will be on voters’ televisions for the next two months.”
Despite the outside spending, most national political publications – including the Center for Politics’ Crystal Ball – have kept the Indiana Senate race in a “leans Republican” or similar category.
Skelley said the race “is not in the first tier of races” that political observers are watching. But he said it’s definitely on the competitive list.
“Republicans must keep this seat in order to have any chance of grabbing a majority in the upper chamber,” he said.
And in a recent analysis, The Rothenberg Political Report said to keep an eye on the race.
“We continue to believe that Romney’s likely big win there (along with Republican gubernatorial nominee Mike Pence’s likely victory) will benefit state Treasurer Richard Mourdock,” Rothenberg said. “But polling continues to show Murdock locked in a tight race with Rep. Joe Donnelly (D) in the general election, and Murdock may well be just one big mistake away from finding himself in a much more difficult race than we expected.”
Lesley Weidenbener is managing editor of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.