A Day in the Life of Independent Political Ads

It's already been a frenetic year in politics. With the presidential primaries finally over, many congressional contests are now getting under way.

Under the radar, outside groups are already working to influence the elections.

On June 1, for example, at least eight independent advertisers bought 161 ad slots, costing roughly $60,000. The ads ran the day the Democratic Party's Rules and Bylaws Committee settled the fight over convention delegates, and two days before a pair of Senate primaries.

All of the advertising was monitored by the Campaign Media Analysis Group. CMAG's Chief Operating Officer Evan Tracey said $60,000 was bargain-basement shopping in "some very small states with very inexpensive media markets, so on a per-spot basis, it's not all that expensive."

So who was on the air... and why?

A group known as Coloradans for Economic Growth is promoting Bob Schaffer, a Republican Senate candidate and former congressman. Their ad touts what they called Schaffer's support of renewable energy.

"America is working to find new sources of energy. Bob Schaffer is making it a priority," the ad says.

The ad names Schaffer four times in 30 seconds. But like almost all of the ads here, it sidesteps some legal restrictions by not talking about him as a candidate.

Kathy Redmond, spokeswoman for Coloradans for Economic Growth, says the ad is about economic growth and energy policy.

"People can look at that and take it for what it is. It certainly wasn't anything like what the League of Conservation Voters did," she says.

She is referring to an issue ad against Schaffer that began running June 1. The ad alleges that Schaffer has accepted campaign contributions from oil and gas companies and, in turn, voted in Congress to give them more than $13 billion in tax breaks. The League of Conservation Voters launched a door-to-door campaign along with the ad.

"We wanted to make sure we had that message out there in broadcast that we would also be conveying on the doors," says Tony Massaro, the group's political director.

But the biggest spender on June 1 wasn't trying to promote or sink any candidate.

Divided We Fail is a strange-bedfellows coalition of AARP, Business Roundtable, National Federation of Independent Business and Service Employees International Union. It wants to end gridlock in Washington.

"Enough is enough," its ad says. "Tell Washington to fix health care and ensure financial security for all. Visit DividedWeFail.org."

Divided We Fail had ads running in markets from Boise, Idaho, to Wheeling, W.Va. Its spokesman, Drew Nannis, says they are running the ads nationwide to "reach as many people as possible."

"And that means the small markets, in addition to the bigger ones. So I think that's a trend you're going to see continuing, at least for our campaign," he says.

Other groups were on the air, too: the Environmental Defense Fund, The Club for Growth and a group supporting Ron Paul for president.

One determined individual, a Chicago dentist named William DeJean, paid for ads to support former Democratic candidate and New York Sen. Hillary Clinton. "Tell the Democratic superdelegates to support Hillary Clinton. Paid for by William DeJean. Not authorized by any candidate or candidate's committee," the ad says.

DeJean says Clinton was treated unfairly. So he says he paid an ad company $20,000 to make a few ads and place them on TV. "You tell them what you want, and they make them up ... Montana, South Dakota ... I had them play 16 times in each state," he said.

Both presidential candidates want to tamp down the independent ads. They would rather get the money themselves and keep control of the message. But it's a fast-growing part of American politics, and CMAG's Evan Tracey says it's going in only one direction.

"When we get to Nov. 1, you're likely to have 80 groups activated and close to 80 times the amount of money being spent," he says.

That would include ads by some groups that don't even exist yet — delivering the sort of shock message a candidate would not dare touch.

Both sides are waiting.

This story includes reporting by the Center for Investigative Reporting.

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