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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:

And I'm Mary Louise Kelly in for Renee Montagne.

Think of it as a whole new economic stimulus. Political groups are spending hundreds of millions of dollars in this fall's election.

INSKEEP: This morning, we'll track some of that money. A few years ago, Republicans held power so they dominated standard fundraising. Democrats found creative ways to compensate.

KELLY: This year, the Democrats in power hold a big advantage in traditional donations. That's according to the Center for Responsive Politics. So now, it's Republicans' turn to get creative.

INSKEEP: And they have, thanks in part to a recent Supreme Court decision that makes it easier for independent groups to spend money anonymously.

NPR's Peter Overby and Andrea Seabrook found these groups may not be so independent after all.

ANDREA SEABROOK: We're going to start with a quiz. Listen to this political ad, we wrote it ourselves, and answer three questions.

PETER OVERBY: One: Who made the ad? Two: Where is that group based? And three: What is the point of the ad?

SEABROOK: Okay? Here we go.

(Soundbite of a political ad)

Unidentified Woman #1: Everyone likes Springfield's apples.

Unidentified Man #1: Everyone except John Smith. He doesn't even eat them.

Unidentified Woman #1: John Smith had an apple tree in his yard.

Unidentified Man #1: But he cut it down.

Unidentified Woman #1: Just like he'd cut apple-picking jobs if we send him to Washington.

Unidentified Man #1: Call John Smith. Tell him: If he's not for apples.

Unidentified Woman #1 and Unidentified Man #1: He's not for us.

Unidentified Woman #2: Americans for Apples is responsible for the content of this advertising.

SEABROOK: Got it? Now the questions.

OVERBY: One: Who made the ad? If you answered Americans for Apples...

(Soundbite of a ding)

OVERBY: ...you're correct. We may not know anything else about this group, but at least we know its name.

SEABROOK: Two: Where is the group based? If you answered Springfield...

(Soundbite of a buzz)

SEABROOK: ...you're wrong. The ad implies it's a local group in John Smith's district. But it could be anywhere and it would probably be in Washington, D.C.

OVERBY: And three: What's the point of the ad? If your answer is to make us vote against John Smith...

(Soundbite of a buzz)

OVERBY: ...wrong again. For legal purposes, Americans for Apples would say it doesn't campaign for or against candidates. It just educates us.

SEABROOK: That's how political advertising works now. Never before has so much of the congressional election campaign been waged by groups that operate independently of the parties and candidates. The groups often bear ambiguous names; Americans for Job Security, Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies, the 60-Plus Association.

Many of them live through the generosity of anonymous donors. The ambiguity and anonymity blur the public understanding of who these groups are.

OVERBY: So let's start with who they say they are. One of the biggest players is American Crossroads. It ran this ad in upstate New York.

(Soundbite of a political ad)

Unidentified Man #2: Scott Murphy broke our trust. Now he wants our vote again? Fool us once, Scott, shame on you.

OVERBY: Its sister organization, called Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies, or Crossroads GPS, describes itself as a grassroots advocacy organization that is committed to educating, equipping and mobilizing millions of American citizens.

SEABROOK: Another group, Americans for Job Security, calls itself the only independent, bipartisan, pro-business issue advocacy organization in America. It's running this ad in southwest Virginia.

(Soundbite of a political ad)

Unidentified Woman #3: Boucher has failed to protect our jobs. Now it's time Rick Boucher loses his.

OVERBY: And then there's the 60-Plus Association, which says it's a nonpartisan seniors' advocacy group. It has this ad in Pennsylvania.

(Soundbite of a political ad)

Unidentified Woman #4: It's no surprise Chris Carney betrayed us.

Unidentified Man #3: He supports Pelosi's agenda 91 percent of the time.

SEABROOK: With these advertisers and others, the same words come up again and again: grassroots, nonpartisan, independent. Their ads seem to imply the groups are homegrown. But every single one we've mentioned here is based within 20 minutes of Capitol Hill. Most of them, in fact, are in just two office suites.

OVERBY: As for their independence, well it would be illegal for them to coordinate their attacks with the candidates they're helping or with Republican Party committees. But among themselves, they're proud of the way they synchronize their efforts.

Jonathan Collegio is with American Crossroads.

Mr. JONATHAN COLLEGIO (Spokesman, American Crossroads): If one group puts an ad on television in a certain congressional district, they let everyone else know that. This way they don't double up on the advertising.

SEABROOK: This teamwork didn't happen by accident. It's hard to grasp, though, just how interconnected these secret donor groups are. So we built a map. It's at NPR.org. To show you how it works, let's take an example.

Someone you've heard of, Karl Rove, President George W. Bush's top political strategist.

OVERBY: Rove co-founded American Crossroads, which later set up Crossroads GPS. Together they've run ads in at least 30 races around the country. They both use the same media services firm to buy airtime for their ads, Crossroads Media, which isn't related to them.

SEABROOK: Other clients of Crossroads Media: House Republican leader John Boehner, the Republican National Committee, and the Republican Governors Association or RGA. This fall, the RGA received a donation of $3.5 million from a man named Bob Perry.

OVERBY: You might recognize that name. Bob Perry helped fund the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth ads against presidential candidate John Kerry in 2004. This fall, Bob Perry made another donation, $7 million to American Crossroads, the group co-founded by Karl Rove.

SEABROOK: If you're lost already, so were we. That's why we made the map. It clearly shows that this isn't a bunch of individual, independent groups. It's one big network, a Republican campaign operation working outside the official party.

OVERBY: Now, this is not a new strategy, the cash flowed freely, and often in secret, two years ago. Except then, it was mostly in support of Democrats. Back in 2008, we traced one network from its funders, including a union and liberal financier George Soros, to an anti-war coalition and an attack ad against Republican presidential candidate John McCain. You can see that map, too, at our website. But what Democrats developed, Republicans have mastered.

SEABROOK: A big reason why: money. Early this year, the Supreme Court ruled that corporations could spend unlimited amounts of money in partisan politics and Republican advocacy groups have been flush with cash ever since. At the beginning of October, they had outspent Democratic groups by a nine to one margin.

OVERBY: Democrats, including President Obama, are trying to make up for it by rallying the liberal base against that corporate money. But that can backfire, says Jonathan Collegio at American Crossroads.

MR.�JONATHAN COLLEGIO (American Crossroads): In the eight days following President Obama's remarks, we actually raised more than $13 million.

SEABROOK: We don't know where much of that $13 million came from. American Crossroads has to disclose its donors, but Crossroads GPS does not. It's a legal loophole that looms larger this year than ever before, even for those that claim to be grassroots organizations. And it's enabled Republicans to build a wide and rich campaign network outside their party. Look for yourself, it's at NPR.org.

OVERBY: One last example of how just tightly the web is woven, B. Wayne Hughes made a fortune in the self-storage business. He sits on the board of the American Action Network. The way they're organized, we don't know how much he's given to them, but we do know he recently gave $1.5 million to American Crossroads, just as the ad campaigns were ramping up. American Crossroads says this on its website.

SEABROOK: (reading) We believe that a new direction for America starts with you, not with clever political ads, consultants and slick fundraising pitches.

Andrea Seabrook.

OVERBY: And Peter Overby, NPR News Washington.

KELLY: So much money is moving that the picture changes day by day. As we've just heard, outside groups appear to have eroded the Democratic fundraising advantage. But just in the last six days, Democrats have also seen some benefits.

INSKEEP: An analysis by the Associated Press finds that labor unions and other outside groups have intensified their support for house candidates. In total, all groups, Republican, Democratic, independent, may spend something in the neighborhood of $3.5 billion this fall.

KELLY: And here's one other note from the intersection of money and politics. A jury has been chosen for the trial of former house majority leader, Tom Delay. That trial starts Monday in Austin, Texas.

INSKEEP: Delay was an architect of the Republican majority that controlled the House for more than a decade. He was also deeply involved in Texas politics and he's accused of illegally financing Texas state legislative races back in 2002.

KELLY: Delay appeared with his wife at the courthouse and said, quote, "We're ready. I'm not worried at all."

You're listening to Morning Edition from NPR News.

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