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Brave New World for Campaign Spending

In case you haven’t read it already, Patrick Caldwell’s profile of the post-Citizens United landscape for campaign spending gets at a number of important trends. First, while 527 groups like MoveOn.org and Swift Boat Veterans for Truth told much of the story of spending during the last few election cycles, they’re quickly going out of fashion in this one:

For high profile companies who still wish to influence campaigns, there are other avenues available beyond independent expenditures that allow them to circumvent disclosure requirements. 527s have captured the imagination of reporters and voters alike over the past decade, but these groups will become more rare, as the groups need to file monthly reports with the FEC that reveal both their expenditures, and their sources of income.

Instead, there is a rising class of non-profits, 501(c)4s, that have taken their place. Unlike 527s, 501(c)4s are not required to provide the FEC with donor information. Conservatives have organized a network of 501(c)4s prepared to run ads before November.

In addition, Caldwell provides the rationale for why those nasty Chamber of Commerce ads directed against Alexi Giannoulias in Illinois and Joe Sestak in Pennsylvania end by urging the viewer to call the candidate, rather than vote against him. Again, it has to do with avoiding the FEC. Even 501(c)4s have to report expenditures on some ads airing in the 60 day run-up to the elections:

Most states have held their primaries or will do so in the next few weeks, while the 60-day window does not begin until early September, creating a gap where organizations are free to air ads without reporting to the FEC as long as they do not directly advocate for candidates. This is one reason why some groups still produce issue-ads, a style of commercial that does not directly deal with upcoming elections, but instead describes a candidates’ stance in relation to specific policies, usually in a negative light.

The Chamber of Commerce, which has pledged to spend $75 million on the midterm elections, continues to produce issue ads attacking various candidates. Over the past month, the Chamber has aired ads against Democratic Senate candidates Alexi Giannoulias in Illinois and Joe Sestak in Pennsylvania that are not electioneering communications outside of the 60-day window. By ending each ad imploring the viewer to call the candidate rather than vote against him, the Chamber has skirted disclosure requirements.

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