Outside groups pour more money into Indiana Senate race than almost any other

By Lesley Weidenbener
The Statehouse File

INDIANAPOLIS – Outside interest groups have spent more to influence the outcome of Indiana’s Senate race during 2011 and 2012 than in any other state but one.

Independent expenditures in the Indiana race have totaled nearly $5 million so far in the current campaign cycle, according to the Federal Election Commission.

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That’s more than in any state except Texas, where independent expenditures have totaled nearly $7 million, the FEC said.

Nearly all of the Indiana spending occurred in the Republican primary battle between current U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar and state Treasurer Richard Mourdock, who defeated the incumbent easily in the state’s May primary.

Mourdock now faces Democrat Joe Donnelly, a congressman from Indiana’s 2nd District, although it’s not clear whether spending in the race will continue at its torrid pace.

Andrew Downs, director of the Downs Center for Indiana Politics at Indiana-Purdue, Fort Wayne, said during the primary season, conservative political groups recognized that Mourdock had an opportunity to win. That’s in part because he was in a one-on-one faceoff with the more moderate Lugar, whose campaign made early mistakes.

“The circumstances fed on themselves and gave Mourdock momentum at the right time,” Downs said. “Once the race seemed winnable, money was likely to follow.”

Also, outside groups had few places to spend money during the primary, said Kyle Kondik, an analyst at the University of Virginia Center for Politics.

“Many Senate primaries, especially ones featuring incumbents, are not all that competitive,” Kondik said. “But conservatives saw a chance to knock off Richard Lugar and spent accordingly.”

Leading up to the primary, Club for Growth – a conservative group that focuses on economic principles – spent nearly $1.47 million on advertising for Mourdock and against Lugar, according to the FEC. FreedomWorks, another political action committee that supported Mourdock, spent more than $566,000.

The American Action Network, a top Republican independent group, was the biggest spender among the groups that supported Lugar, according to the FEC. It spent $645,000 before the primary.

The data is based on 24-hour and 48-hour spending reports filed with the Federal Election Commission in 2011 and so far in 2012. 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.

The 2011-2012 spending is unusual for Indiana, which has had relatively few competitive Senate races in recent years.

Even during the 2009-2010 election cycle – after then-U.S. Sen. Evan Bayh, a Democrat, retired – independent spending in the race between the eventual winner, Republican Dan Coats, and his Democrat opponent, Brad Ellsworth, totaled just $226,000. The FEC reports that independent groups spent a larger amount in 21 states during that election cycle.

But this year has been different. Democrats are trying to protect a slim majority and see the Indiana race as a possible pickup. The Cook Political Report – a national political website – has rated the race as leans Republican. So has the Center for Politics’ Crystal Ball.

Mourdock’s win gives Democrats “an outside chance to steal a Republican-held seat,” the Crystal Ball reports. Still, Kondik said that “as the general election gets closer, other states with competitive Senate races will catch and surpass Indiana in spending.”

But he and Downs said spending in the Indiana race could continue if Donnelly proves he is competitive.

“At least one group is spending money in the state already and we aren’t half-way through June,” Downs said. “If polling data shows that the race is at all close, the candidates will be able to raise more money and outside groups will pour money into the state.”

But Donnelly’s campaign spokeswoman, Elizabeth Shappell, said what “gets lost in these special interest ads is Hoosier common sense.”

“Nameless out-of-state billionaires already bought one Indiana election when they took down Sen. Lugar in the Republican primary,” she said. “Now they’re after another and are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to buy Indiana’s U.S. Senate seat.”

Lesley Weidenbener is managing editor of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.

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