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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:

And I'm Mary Louise Kelly.

Outside political groups are pouring cash into this year's midterm campaigns. They've already spent nearly $100 million, with more to come. The Supreme Court's ruling in the Citizens United case opened the door to this increase by allowing donors to contribute to these groups secretly.

SIEGEL: The shift has meant a bonanza for Republicans. So far, outside group spending on behalf of the GOP has outpaced spending for Democrats by a 7-1 margin. That's according to a Washington Post analysis. This new money flows outside the party committees, but it has a direct effect on them.

Now we have reports from our two national political correspondents. In a moment, Mara Liasson looks at the new world from a Democratic perspective. But first, Don Gonyea checks in with the Republicans.

DON GONYEA: Most of the money collected by independent groups is being spent the easy way - on ads - attack ads in target states like Colorado.

(Soundbite of advertisement)

Unidentified Man: Michael Bennet was a deciding vote on Obama-care.

Senator MICHAEL BENNET (Democrat, Colorado): We desperately need to do health care reform.

Unidentified Man: Bennet promised...

GONYEA: This ad goes after Democratic U.S. Senator Bennet. It is the product of American Crossroads, an independent group created by Karl Rove, President George W. Bush's political right-hand man. Rove is happy to boast about the good year he and his new organization have had. This is from a speech last week in Denver.

Mr. KARL ROVE (American Crossroads): And my job is to raise $52 million to spend in House and Senate races. And guess what? We've raised more than that. And you've seen it here in Colorado.

(Soundbite of applause)

GONYEA: Rove's group has the feel of the Republican establishment because he's so steeped in that world. Donors to the group can be anonymous or not, individual or corporate. American Crossroads, though, is small and agile with lots of clout. And it's Rove who calls the shots. Many of the groups attracting big dollars to the Republican side this year have familiar names behind them. But some feature a more insurgent style, to match that of the Tea Party movement.

Veteran Republican political consultant Alex Castellanos says it all creates lots of options for potential donors. He spoke following a breakfast forum in Washington this week.

Mr. ALEX CASTELLANOS (Political consultant): So now, my political party is not my only vehicle to express myself. And we're seeing the same thing that's happened to communications - the fragmenting of an old institution - is happening in politics.

GONYEA: Now, the potential down side is that these independent groups may stray from the disciplined message of a campaign.�They may, for example, talk about Social Security or abortion at a time when the candidate is trying to downplay such topics. Alex Castellanos says that's a minor problem.

Mr. CASTELLANOS: Is it chaotic? Yes. Is it healthy? Yes.

GONYEA: An additional incentive for many traditional GOP donors to turn to independent groups may be the controversy that has surrounded current Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele on everything from his spending habits to his public persona.

Former GOP Senator Mel Martinez of Florida made indirect reference to that at an event in Washington yesterday.

Mr. MEL MARTINEZ (Former Republican Senator, Florida): I think there was, you know, I mean, undoubtedly, there was some lack of confidence that the RNC was up to the job that it traditionally plays. They weren't raising the kind of money they normally do. And so, I think these groups stepped up, and I think they'll be a permanent fixture, though.

GONYEA: The amount of outside money pouring in is also prompting GOP leaders at the state level�to explore better ways to spend money they would typically spend on TV ads.�Saul Anuzis is a Republican National Committeeman from Michigan.

Mr. SAUL ANUZIS (Republican National Committee, Michigan): You may spend more of your money, say, on what we refer to as our victory program, or our ground program, where we're using money to identify voters, make the phone calls to get out the vote, deliver the literature knowing that there's going to be sort of air cover coming from these third-party groups.

GONYEA: Anuzis predicts that the traditional party's role in elections will change but not diminish.�He adds that the amount of cash coming in from independent groups will prompt the GOP to adapt as needed, to make the most of the new environment and the new money.

Don Gonyea, NPR News, Washington.

MARA LIASSON: And I'm Mara Liasson. Democrats are raising money, too - lots of money. Their campaign committees and President Obama are raking in millions of dollars the old-fashioned way - in limited, disclosed contributions.

And Democrats do have independent groups of their own - the unions, Planned Parenthood, MoveOn.org, et cetera, but they haven't been able to help the Democrats keep up with the gusher of conservative campaign cash uncorked�by the Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United.��

Mr. TERRY MCAULIFFE (Former chairman, Democratic Party): You don't see the excitement of outside groups you saw in '08 or in '06 or let's say even in '04 when John Kerry ran for president, you just don't see it.

LIASSON: That's Terry McAuliffe, former chairman of the Democratic Party and Bill Clinton's uber fundraiser.

There are lots�of reasons Democrats are being outspent across the board this year, and according to strategist�Simon Rosenberg, donor fatigue and disappointment are just part of the story.�

Mr. SIMON ROSENBERG: In a previous age, under a different legal regime the Democrats did build a vast empire of outside groups that were highly effective in American politics but moved away from them as the Democrats built a political system that was more about harnessing the power and energy of everyday people than, you know, a couple hundred wealthy people.

LIASSON: President�Obama, an ardent campaign finance reformer, didn't just�build�an alternative fundraising universe at the grassroots. In 2008, he�explicitly�told his own party's big dollar outside groups to�stand down. Simon Rosenberg.

Mr. ROSENBERG: The leader of their party and the president of the United States said he felt that this kind of political activity was illegitimate. And so there's no question that made it much more difficult for any analogue set of institutions that gets set up on the left to combat what had been set up on the right.

LIASSON: And says Terry McAuliffe, the president's focus on small dollar grassroots fundraising may have had a discouraging effect on big donors.

Mr. MCAULIFFE: A lot of the big folks who probably would write these big gigantic checks say, well, President Obama doesn't want it, there's a lot of places I could put my money - charity or other things.

LIASSON: So what is�the Democrats' alternative - other than wringing their�hands about the damage Citizens United has done to American politics?�They've made�legal challenges to some of the new unlimited donations. And the White House did try unsuccessfully to pass legislation forcing more disclosure. But neither of those strategies will counter�the new Republican�money advantage.�Again, Simon Rosenberg.

Mr. ROSENBERG: After this election, there's going to be a lot of debate what Democrats should do. Should they match what's been done on the right, you know, or should there be legal challenges or there should be a series of strategies to try to undermine Citizens United while also, you know, getting pragmatic about responding to a different political landscape. That may be unfortunate but it's just the way it's going to be now.

LIASSON: But even if the Democrats do put aside their good government compunctions, the reality is�they simply can't compete with the�resources on the Republican side, says Democratic strategist Geoff Garin.�

Mr. GEOFF GARIN: The pockets are a lot more deep on the Republican side and on the corporate side than they are on the Democratic side. And that is the fact of life and the only way we can compete with that is to engage individual and small donors at the kind of level that President Obama did in 2008 and will have to do again in 2012.

LIASSON: So�the president may have little alternative but�to raise his money�where�his mouth is. That is, to rebuild and expand his vaunted grassroots fundraising machine to try to counteract�the flood of money on the other side.� Right now, no one is sure that's possible.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.

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