WASHINGTON – Deep-pocketed unions, business groups and others are spending heavily in the year's early primaries, including a staggering $9.6 million to influence a Democratic Senate race in Arkansas, adding volatility to a struggle for control of Congress that has already produced its share of surprises.
The flood of money comes under campaign laws that bar coordination with the candidates and sometimes allow donors to hide their identity. Outsiders can be left guessing about the true political objective, and already, one organization has produced an ad that's drawn accusations of racism.
According to campaign professionals in both parties, these independent efforts can achieve their stated purpose — or actually hinder the candidate they are designed to help.
"They have the opportunity to help if they are complementing the issue debate that's ongoing," said Carl Forti, a former top official at the National Republican Congressional Committee.
"But you also run the risk of a third-party group coming in on a message that's not really been an issue in the campaign and doing more harm than good by" changing the subject said Forti, who now works for an independent organization, American Crossroads, created to help Republicans.
However controversial or even effective, these efforts mirror struggles unfolding inside both major political parties as they set their candidate lineups for the general election in November.
The assault by tea party activists and other conservatives on the Republican establishment has toppled Utah Sen. Bob Bennett and is playing out in television ads, mass mailings and other efforts by outside groups in the GOP senatorial primary in Kentucky this week. Anything but subtle, a commercial paid for by America Future Fund, a Des Moines, Iowa-based organization, strongly suggests that Republican senatorial front-runner Rand Paul is crazy.
Among Democrats, several unions have invested millions to deny Arkansas Sen. Blanche Lincoln renomination on Tuesday, a move that puts them at cross-purposes with party leaders and an approach that other labor groups have shied away from.
"It's time to send a message of accountability," said Jon Youngdahl, political director for the Service Employees International Union, citing the two-term lawmaker's votes in favor of trade legislation opposed by organized labor and her opposition to important parts of a union-backed agenda.
Ironically, in a costly counterthrust, two business-oriented organizations are spending heavily to help Lincoln, possibly on the assumption that she would be easier for Republicans to beat this fall than would her primary opponent, Lt. Gov. Bill Halter.
Americans for Job Security has produced the most controversial ad of the young election year and reported plunking down nearly $1.5 million to show it. In it, actors speaking in Indian accents purport to "thank" Lincoln's rival for shipping American jobs overseas.
The ad has sparked charges of racism and drawn denunciations from both Democratic contenders. But for whatever reason, recent polling suggests Halter's best hope on Tuesday appears to be to force Lincoln into a June 8 runoff.
In Nevada, where Republicans choose a challenger for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid on June 8, TeaPartyExpress.org has reported spending $272,000 so far to help one Republican, Sharron Angle.
At the same time, Patriot Majority aired an ad ridiculing a second Republican, Sue Lowden. It shows her saying, "In the olden days our grandparents, they would bring a chicken to the doctor," then shows a series of men and women reacting with disbelief.
The organization is funded in part by unions and run by Craig Varoga, a veteran of numerous Democratic campaigns as well as a stint nearly two decades ago on Reid's staff.
A special election to fill the unexpired term of the late Democratic Rep. John Murtha of Pennsylvania is a magnet for outside money.
The two political parties have each spent about $1 million independently of their candidates to influence the outcome of a race that has become something of a laboratory for the fall as much as a contest between Republican Tim Burns and Democrat Mark Critz. In addition, the SEIU has spent $200,000 and several Republican-aligned groups about $300,000 combined.
"There are certain places where the political elites in this country look to form a judgment as to what's going on in the rest of the country," said Stephen DeMaura, president of Americans For Job Security, a group that says on its website it supports a "pro-growth, pro-jobs message." He said the organization seeks them out in hopes of having a larger impact nationally.
As long as the group does not directly advocate the election or defeat of any candidate in the race, federal law does not require Americans for Job Security to disclose the donors who paid to run the commercial. As a result, its motive remains something of a mystery.
Is the ad the work of business interests reflexively trying to counter unions?
An effort by Republicans to help Lincoln defeat Halter, in the belief she would be easier to beat in the fall than Halter?
Perhaps those behind the ad simply want to make sure Lincoln wins a new term, an unlikely possibility given the sponsoring organization's history of siding with conservative Republicans.
There is no such mystery about the Kentucky commercial sponsored by American Future Fund, although given the relatively small amount of money involved, it is unclear what its impact will be.
It shows Paul, tie askew, while an announcer relates the candidate's record on coal production and Iran's nuclear ambitions. Twice within 30 seconds, the doors of a clock swing open. A bird emerges and chirps "cuckoo."
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