MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

The fall midterm elections are just over a month away, and many campaigns have become battlegrounds for special-interest groups with substantial, and sometimes mysterious, financial backing. These groups come in many shapes and sizes and many names - 527s, 501(c)(4)s, 501(c)(6)s.

BLOCK: And it appears that corporate money is now flowing through some of them. That's a result of the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision last January, which let corporations and unions expressly support individual candidates or more likely attack them.

NPR's Peter Overby explains how a number of outside groups and their money are shaping one congressional race.

PETER OVERBY: Michigan's 7th District sits at the southern edge of the state. It's balanced on a partisan edge as well. Democrat Mark Schauer is the congressman. He unseated Republican Tim Walberg two years ago. Now, Walberg is back for a rematch. We're looking at the 7th District because it pops out in a new national study of campaign ads and spending.

Professor ERIKA FOWLER (Government, Wesleyan University): The big story is we're seeing a stark increase in volume of advertising. And a lot of that is driven by candidates, and some of it is driven by interest groups.

OVERBY: Erika Fowler at Wesleyan University in Connecticut is one of the political scientists doing the research. She says the Schauer-Walberg race pops out because it's the only House race where these outside groups have been out-advertising the candidates themselves. In fact, putting on...

Prof. FOWLER: About 65 percent of the ads on the airwaves.

OVERBY: And every single one of them, an attack ad.

(Soundbite of political ad)

Unidentified Man #1: Tell Schauer he works for us, not Nancy Pelosi.

OVERBY: That's from Americans For Prosperity, the group founded by oil billionaire David Koch and now a major player in the Tea Party movement. The ad ran more than 300 times in August, coordinated with a grassroots operation.

Now, obviously, the ad attacks Schauer, but it's hedged enough that an advocacy group like Americans for Prosperity can stay on the right side of the law and still not have to disclose its donors. The group's state coordinator, Scott Hagerstrom, says it's educational to highlight Schauer's votes on the stimulus bill, cap and trade, and the health care overhaul.

Mr. SCOTT HAGERSTROM: It's our position that we educate people about the votes that they've taken, how they've voted and then let people make the decision of how they want to vote.

OVERBY: On the Democrat side, labor unions don't need that fig leaf of education. The Supreme Court has said corporations and unions can do the harder-hitting ads called independent expenditures. So the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees laid out $750,000 for this spot.

(Soundbite of political ad)

Unidentified Man #2: When Tim Walberg went to Congress, his votes helped burn down our economy, damaging families and industries across Michigan.

OVERBY: And the Communications Workers of America spent $100,000 for this one.

(Soundbite of political ad)

Unidentified Man #3: Now, Walberg wants his old job back. But with a record like that, why would we ever rehire him?

OVERBY: Chuck Rocha is a political consultant to the Communications Workers.

Mr. CHUCK ROCHA (Political Consultant, Communications Workers of America): We feel it's that important to make sure that we protect people who've come to Washington, D.C., and stood for workers.

OVERBY: And a couple of weeks ago, the 7th District got still another barrage of independent expenditure ads - $550,000 worth - from another conservative group, the American Future Fund.

(Soundbite of political ad)

Unidentified Woman: Don't be tricked. Magic can't change his liberal record. But this November, your vote can make Mark Schauer disappear.

OVERBY: The founder of the American Future Fund, Iowa consultant Nick Ryan, says he's not coordinating with Americans for Prosperity or any of the other players in the 7th District.

Mr. NICK RYAN (Founder, American Future Fund): Everybody has their own mission that they want to accomplish. And so to that end, I think that they need to be accountable to their boards and their supporters.

OVERBY: But given the chaotic state of the campaign finance laws, none of these groups has to be accountable to anyone else, including the voters of Michigan's 7th District.

Peter Overby, NPR News.

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