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August 3, 2015

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Deep-pocket Super PACs pumping cash into Nevada Senate race

Names of corporate donors coming Friday

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ASSOCIATED PRESS FILE

Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., who is seeking his fifth term in a bruising race against Republican Sharron Angle, is critical of groups helping Angle, but has also benefited from other groups’ spending on ads attacking his foes.

Sharron Angle

Sharron Angle

Sun archives

When the U.S. Supreme Court this year determined that corporations and unions had the same rights as the rest of us and could contribute copious amounts of money to candidates and political causes, the ruling was applauded by some and greeted by others with prophecies of doom.

Proponents hailed it as an expansion of First Amendment rights. Opponents said it would open a floodgate of special-interest money, further wresting control of the political dialogue from average citizens to the benefit of the powerful.

The reality of what that decision has so far wrought — good and bad — is on display in Nevada this campaign season as this new breed of spending — unlimited and much of it anonymous — is pouring in to influence voters who will decide the high-profile race between Republican Sharron Angle and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

Nevada’s Senate race ranks sixth in the nation for outside spending, according to figures from the Center for Responsive Politics. About $5 million has been spent attacking or supporting both candidates.

A lot of that money is from a new form of political actor — the Super PAC — created in the wake of two Supreme Court rulings this year. Unlike candidates or traditional political action committees, Super PACs can accept unlimited contributions from corporations, labor unions and individuals and can spend that money expressly advocating for a candidate of their choice.

Under past law, such political groups could indirectly support a candidate — for example, by telling voters to tell Reid to nix health care reform — but they could not expressly say vote for or against Reid.

Because these new groups are so young — they’ve only been legal since July — the identity of many donors won’t be revealed until Friday — a day before early voting begins and about two weeks before Election Day.

“Groups can now raise and spend as much money as they want directly advocating in the most profound ways for and against the candidates,” said David Levinthal, spokesman for Center for Responsive Politics.

“The big caveat is they don’t have to immediately disclose their donors. They can put up an ad today and you won’t know until the middle of October as to who may truly be funneling the hundreds of thousands of dollars they are spending.”

At a campaign stop last week, Reid denounced the spending of “shady” organizations to oppose his candidacy, blaming those groups for driving down his approval rating.

“They’ve been spending tens of millions against me for a year and a half, all these outside groups,” Reid said. “Where’s the money coming from? There’s no transparency.”

Although he inflated the amount spent against him so far (it’s only $2 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics), Reid has been the subject of attack ads funded by groups with varying degrees of transparency. Most notably, American Crossroads, launched by GOP operatives Karl Rove and Ed Gillespie, and its sister organization, Crossroads GPS, are spending heavily in Nevada.

Rove is widely credited as the architect of George W. Bush’s successful presidential bids, and Gillespie is a former Republican National Committee chairman.

American Crossroads is an example of the Super PAC, and has accepted contributions as high as $1 million from Fortune 500 companies, oil executives and other interests. The organization has elected, however, to disclose its contributors monthly. (Under federal guidelines they can report monthly or quarterly.)

Crossroads GPS, however, is a political nonprofit organization that does not have to disclose its donors as long as less than half of its activity is politically related. To maintain it’s tax-exempt status as a nonprofit organization, however, it must have a broader mission outside of politics.

Reid has borne the brunt of that opposition spending, but he has also benefited significantly from more than $1 million spent against his opponents.

Patriot Majority, a group run by one of Reid’s former campaign staffers, Craig Varoga, played a key role in defeating Sue Lowden in the Republican primary. By hammering Lowden, the group helped provide the opening for Angle, seen by Reid allies as a weaker opponent, to win that contest. That effort was funded by large contributions from labor unions.

In July, the group began taking advantage of the new Super PAC status and has spent more than $700,000, mostly on television advertising against Angle.

Some of Patriot Majority’s ads have been humorous and targeted on the economy. Lately, however, its been launching an uglier line of attack, reminding voters of Angle’s comments that abortion should be universally opposed, even in the case of rape or incest.

“They have carte blanche to get as ugly as they want to and spend as much money as they want,” Levinthal said.

Reid supported the failed Disclose Act, which would have required more transparency from groups funding political advertising. The measure was opposed by Republicans.

Some organizations benefiting from the money sources are operating more covertly this election cycle, eschewing the large-scale television ad buys for ground operations to get voters to the polls.

Americans for New Leadership, a Super PAC launched by Republican operative Dick Morris and run in-state by Robert Uithoven’s j3 Strategies, has contracted with a paid get-out-the-vote vendor to conduct turnout operations for Republicans in the 3rd Congressional District.

American for Prosperity, a nonprofit political group largely funded by Manhattan tycoons Charles and David Koch, is quietly conducting voter turnout operations in Southern Nevada.

The Kochs, who made their fortunes in oil, manufacturing and paper products, have spent decades funding conservative think tanks and movements. A recent New Yorker piece detailed their work funding the Tea Party movement, recognizing the upstart activists as a desperately needed cadre of “boots on the ground” for conservatives.

Although some groups in Nevada are benefiting from $1 million contributions from billionaires, others are relying on much smaller donors, indicating the ruling hasn’t pushed aside grass-roots efforts.

“We’re able to accept million-dollar contributions, but ... there are so many groups out there right now competing for large-dollar contributors and there are only so many of them,” Uithoven said. “For us it has been mainly a Web-based, small-dollar-donor funded group.”

Although the effects of the Supreme Court ruling may not be known for years, the millions spent so far in Nevada by outside groups have shaped the U.S. Senate race that’s attracting many of those dollars.

Spending by the conservative groups Club for Growth and Tea Party Express was credited with sweeping Angle to an unexpected victory in the GOP primary. Since then, their money bought Angle time to raise her own funding to challenge Reid’s expected $25 million war chest.

And in that regard, the outside groups may end up having more influence than the candidates.

“The avenues of influence have expanded and as a result of that, outside groups have the opportunity to play a potentially greater role in elections than they have before,” Levinthal said.

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