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MICHELE NORRIS, host: The 2012 elections are more than a year away, but plenty of campaign dollars are already being spent. And some Republican Party leaders have begun to feel their control of Republican activism slip away. The reason, as NPR's Peter Overby reports, is independent groups. They're gaining clout in part because they can raise money more easily than the party itself.

PETER OVERBY: Those expressing concern are mostly Washington insiders savvy about how political money flows and how the laws channel it here or there.

ROBERT KELNER: I think this is the election cycle where we may see, really, the virtual death of the national party committees.

OVERBY: That's election law attorney Robert Kelner. The McCain-Feingold law of 2002 made it illegal for the national parties to use unregulated soft money. In practice, that means each party committee can only tap even its most generous donors for $30,800 per year.

KELNER: And so money flows to where it can be most easily raised and spent, which is outside the political party structure.

OVERBY: And here's Exhibit A. The Republican National Committee, so far in 2011, has raised $37 million. Sounds like a lot, right? But consider that right now just one of the outside money groups is spending $20 million on a TV ad campaign.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I supported President Obama because he spoke so beautifully. But since then, things have gone from bad to much worse.

STEVEN LAW: We felt it was really important to place a big bet early.

OVERBY: This is Steven Law, President of twin groups called American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS.

LAW: Our instinct was that the debt limit debate would be the defining issue of 2011, setting up the debate for fiscal and economic policies going into next year.

KELNER: This ad campaign is from Crossroads GPS. Officially, it's a social welfare organization, so it doesn't have to disclose its donors. If the ad had come from American Crossroads, a political committee, then disclosure would be mandatory.

There are groups like these on the left, too, so Democrats may come to face similar issues about where the center of power lies, that is, if they ever catch up in the outside money race. The Democrats came late to the game after spending last year blasting the pro-Republican groups for their secrecy.

PHIL KERPEN: Last cycle, the president of the United States attacked us by name at least 18 times by my count.

OVERBY: Phil Kerpen is vice president for Policy at Americans for Prosperity, which helped to underwrite the Tea Party Movement in 2009. He expects an advertising onslaught this year and next.

KERPEN: Voters will be exposed to just about every message possible, and I think we'll have sort of a saturation.

OVERBY: And that's not just for the general elections. FreedomWorks, another Tea Party powerhouse, helped to keep a longtime GOP Senator from being renominated in Utah last year. Now they're trying again, targeting Orrin Hatch in Utah and Richard Lugar in Indiana. If that makes the National Republican Senatorial Committee spend money in the primaries instead of in the general election, FreedomWorks Vice President Max Pappas says that's okay.

MAX PAPPAS: FreedomWorks exists to promote freedom and the NRSC is just to promote Republican incumbents from the Senate.

OVERBY: The debt limit fight helped to sharpen this tension between outside money groups and the party establishment. Among those battling against a compromise was one of the oldest of the outside groups, the Club for Growth, and most of the lawmakers who'd gotten the club's endorsement and gotten money from club members voted against the debt ceiling compromise brought forth by the House GOP leadership.

David Keating is the club's executive director. He says the party leaders should get used to it.

DAVID KEATING: I'm sure it's a big headache for them, but we think it's a good headache to give them.

OVERBY: One way to cure this headache, both sides of the controversy agree, would be to do away with the remnants of the McCain-Feingold law and let everyone raise money without limits. Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

NORRIS: This is NPR.

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