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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

In Senate races, Democrats are fighting to preserve their thin majority. And now their party campaign committee wants the Federal Election Commission to crack down on some of the Republicans' wealthiest allies: outside money groups that identify themselves as non-political. Democrats are unhappy that these groups are using anonymous contributions to finance a multi-million-dollar onslaught of attack ads.

NPR's Peter Overby reports.

PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: At the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, director Matt Canter says the pro-Republican groups aren't playing by the rules.

MATT CANTER: These are organizations that are allowing right-wing billionaires and corporations to essentially get special treatment.

OVERBY: Democrats don't have high-roller groups like these. And Canter says that while ordinary donors in politics have to disclose their contributions...

CANTER: These right-wing billionaires and corporations that are likely behind the ads that these organizations are running don't have to adhere to any of those laws.

OVERBY: The complaint cites Crossroads GPS, cofounded by Republican strategist Karl Rove, Americans for Prosperity, supported by the billionaire industrialists David and Charles Koch, and 60-Plus, which bills itself as the senior citizens' conservative alternative to AARP. The three groups have all told the IRS they are social welfare organizations - just like thousands of local civic groups - and definitely not political committees.

Canter said they've collectively spent about $22 million attacking Democrats in Senate races this cycle. The Obama campaign filed a similar complaint against Crossroads GPS last month, and watchdog groups have repeated complained to the FEC and IRS.

At Crossroads GPS, spokesman Jonathan Collegio said their ads talk about things like unemployment and government overspending.

JONATHAN COLLEGIO: Hose are all issues and advertising that's protected by the First Amendment. And it would be de facto censorship for the government to stop that type of advocacy from taking place.

OVERBY: And on Fox News recently, Karl Rove said the Crossroads organization is prepared to defend itself and its donors' anonymity.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOX NEWS BROADCAST)

KARL ROVE: We have some of the best lawyers in the country - both on the tax side and the political side, political law and election law - to make sure that we never get close to a line that would push us into make GPS a political group, as opposed to a social welfare organization.

OVERBY: But it's possible that the legal ground may be shifting slowly beneath the social welfare organizations. They've been a political vehicle of choice for big donors who want to stay private, especially as the Supreme Court loosened the rules for unlimited money.

But last month a federal appeals court in Richmond, Virginia said the FEC has the power to tell a social welfare organization that it's advertising like a political committee, and it has to play by those rules.

Campaign finance lawyer Larry Noble used to be the FEC's chief counsel. He says that the court ruling won't put anyone out of business this year.

LARRY NOBLE: But it will have a chilling effect on these groups' ability to raise contributions, because it will call to question whether or not they're really going to be able to keep their donors confidential.

OVERBY: The first obstacle to that kind of enforcement is the FEC itself, a place where controversial issues routinely end in a partisan deadlock. Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.

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