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Pinch-Hitting For The Party

An unusual number of conservative groups this week put up attack ads in Senate races around the country. Among them: the American Future Fund, Americans for Prosperity, Freedom's Watch, and two anti-union organizations.

Now comes confirmation of the puzzle's missing piece. These independent ads are running just when Senate Republicans can't afford to do hit pieces of their own.

John Ensign of Nevada, chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, blames other Republican senators. He didn't name names, but issued this statement Friday morning:

I recently challenged my colleagues to step up to the plate and help me provide the resources our candidates need to compete in races across the country — to match the DSCC [Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee] expenditures in targeted races. It has become clear that my call has gone largely unanswered. I have no control over the timing or content of IE ads, but I have had no choice but to decrease the total budget of our IE Unit. It is still my hope that my Republican colleagues will engage in this election and help match what the Democrats are doing. If they do, I will adjust our budget accordingly.

Both the NRSC and its House counterpart are hurting this year, compared to the Democratic Hill committees. June 30 cash-on-hand figures were $24.6 million for the NRSC, $46.2 million for the DSCC.

When Ensign refers to "independent expenditures," he's talking about one of the more bizarre arrangements created by the campaign finance system. But it's also the legal vehicle for the national parties to run attack ads and be only semi-accountable for them.

A party committee (say, the NRSC) puts together an independent-expenditure team, gives them some millions of dollars and — literally — sends them across town to set up shop. Anything the IE team does is legal, provided there's no coordination with the NRSC mothership.

But if there's not enough money for that, as Ensign now says, the NRSC has to depend on the kindness of, well, not quite strangers, but outsiders.