Campaign finance is taking center stage in American politics once again. The Supreme Court rolled back aggregate spending limits. Senate Democrats held a hearing this week featuring former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens. Majority Leader Harry Reid has made spending by the Koch brothers a campaign issue.
All of this might give the impression that Senate Democrats are disadvantaged in the money game, but that is not necessarily true. In fact, by some counts, they are ahead.
With the rise of so-called dark money groups — organizations that aren't required to disclose donors and spending — the money picture is murky. But when it comes to money that is disclosed and tracked by the Federal Election Commission, Democratic Senate candidates raised about $165 million through March, while GOP candidates raised roughly $149 million, according to the most recent numbers.
Democrats also have a slight edge in independent expenditures, with $34.9 million going toward liberal causes and $34.2 million going toward conservative causes, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
With a Senate election landscape that favors the GOP, and red-state Democrats already playing defense, Republicans hope to stretch the field. One way they're doing that is by spending money from their leadership PACs on candidates that could be viable.
"It has to do with nominating enough really good candidates in states like New Hampshire and Iowa and Michigan and Oregon that will have a chance to win," said Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee.
Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's leadership PAC, the Bluegrass Committee, has written $190,000 in checks to Republicans in Senate races, according to the center, including to Terri Lynn Land in Michigan and Mike McFadden in Minnesota. In Oregon, McConnell also contributed to Monica Wehby, the Republican doctor vying for the party's nomination and the chance to take on Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley in November.
But stretching the field comes at a price. Betting on a candidate in a state like Oregon, where President Obama won by 12 points, could mean less money in a state like Louisiana, where Mitt Romney won handily. "It might have the effect of costing the Democrats more money, but it will cost the Republicans as well," Alexander said.
For their part, Democrats are trying to stem the expansion of the electoral map into blue states like Colorado, Minnesota, and New Hampshire. Reid's Searchlight Leadership PAC has spent $235,000 backing Democrats, for instance, and the Senate Majority PAC, a group run by former Reid aides, has spent $7.7 million in independent expenditures against Republicans, including Scott Brown in New Hampshire.
In some cases, leadership money will be followed by spending from outside groups. "If you think that they're just kind of doing it because they're on their own? No," said Democratic Sen. Mark Begich of Alaska, who is in one of the toughest reelection fights this year. "I guarantee you if they're putting money in there now, the Koch brothers and Karl Rove and company will be next."
Democrats have made outside spending in states like Alaska, Louisiana, and North Carolina a key campaign issue. Reid regularly hammers the Koch brothers from the Senate floor, alluding to the group's "tentacles," and even coining terms like "Kochtopus."
The issue of campaign finance has become such a part of the Democrats' election-year rhetoric that Reid has promised a vote on Sen. Tom Udall's constitutional amendment, which would allow for regulation of campaign cash. Republicans counter that Democrats are being hypocritical.
Last week, for example, the National Republican Senatorial Committee, when asked whether Democrats are essentially coordinating with outside groups — which is prohibited — pointed out that in New Hampshire, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen's campaign seemed to be shopping an ad script to outside spenders. Republicans have also charged that Reid's attacks on the Koch brothers from the Senate floor are politically motivated, and have fired off a complaint to the Senate Ethics Committee.
In return, Democrats accuse Republicans of dropping political bread crumbs for outside groups. But Republicans say they're only copying Democratic tactics. "We're replicating what Democrats have done the last two cycles," said Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina. "It's a matter of offense and defense, and we're on offense."
Indeed, Republicans need to net six seats to take the majority in the fall. It could well be within their grasp, with promising candidates in states like Colorado, where Rep. Cory Gardner is taking on incumbent Democratic Sen. Mark Udall, and New Hampshire, where Brown, the former senator from Massachusetts, is taking on Shaheen. McConnell and others have also donated to McFadden in Minnesota as well as Wehby in Oregon, a sign those races could be competitive, lawmakers say.
Democrats say Republicans are trying to wear their resources thin in an attempt to knock off vulnerable lawmakers in states like Alaska. "I think the issue is they're trying to do a scatter-gun approach so they can get billions from these guys as secondary money," Begich said, referring to outside groups. "And they know that we have limited resources. And they're trying to stretch."
But not all Democratic lawmakers are worried. Where red-state Democrats sometimes highlight the differences between themselves and their party — think Sen. Mark Pryor of Arkansas and his opposition to the Democrats' minimum-wage bill — blue-state Democrats have a somewhat easier time taking aim at Republicans. Merkley, for example, says he is not sweating McConnell and other Republicans spending in his race.
"It doesn't concern me," he said. "It shows that McConnell is ideologically aligned with Monica Wehby. I don't think there's any big surprise there."