Midwest Democracy | Money from outside groups floods Missouri in bid to unseat McCaskill

“Where’s the cavalry?”

That’s the question some Democrats in Missouri are asking about the wave of outside money flooding the state to unseat Sen. Claire McCaskill.

Largely conservative outside groups favorable to Republicans have so far outspent those favoring Democrats in the Show-Me State by as much as 7-to-1, according to campaign observers. Republicans have questioned whether the difference is that big.

McCaskill, viewed as one of the more vulnerable Senate Democrats this year, is not without resources. She has raised $2.3 million since January and has $6 million in the bank. The veterans advocacy group VoteVets also recently spent nearly $200,000 to air a pro-McCaskill ad in Kansas City and St. Louis. And she is among the wealthiest members of the Senate.

But with corporations, unions and others now permitted to spend unlimited amounts of money, and big donors allowed to remain secret, some Democrats, including McCaskill, are wondering when their reinforcements are coming.

“It’s very hard,” she said. “I really feel like I’m boxing shadows. I’d give anything if I knew who was buying these ads.”

She’s not alone. In several highly competitive Senate races across the country, spending on the airwaves by “super PACs” and independent nonprofit groups favors Republicans by wide margins.

In the key presidential battleground state of Ohio, “we’re being outspent 10-to-1” by outside groups, said Justin Barasky, a spokesman for Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown.

He said that the race is tightening and that the biggest challenge will be the financial advantage enjoyed by Brown’s opponents.

“The threat of unlimited amounts of money coming in by outside groups makes any incumbent all the more worried about having sufficient funds to fight,” said Michael Beckel, who tracks campaign spending for the Center for Public Integrity, a nonpartisan political watchdog group.

Part of the Democrats’ problem is that most of the oxygen in their fundraising universe is being swallowed up right now by President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign. Democrats also “don’t have the number of eight-figure donors that Republicans have,” said Democratic political strategist Steve Murphy. “We just don’t.”

But several top Missouri Democrats said they are not overly concerned about being outspent right now because McCaskill is holding her own in the polls.

“If we felt like her numbers were slipping, I think you would see more cash being spent,” said Michael Kelly, former executive director of the Missouri Democratic Party.

McCaskill will face one of three Republicans vying for their party’s Senate nomination: former state treasurer Sarah Steelman, Rep. Todd Akin from suburban St. Louis or St. Louis businessman John Brunner.

McCaskill has been trying to husband her resources for the fall, when she likely will need them the most. But she has spent more than half a million dollars so far on her own ads to try to counter the third-party onslaught.

Since her election in 2006, McCaskill has tried to carve out an independent role in the Senate. She has worked with conservative Republicans on financial issues and has bucked her party and the White House on certain votes.

But her support of the president’s economic stimulus program and the health care overhaul are the go-to issues that the third-party ads focus on against Democrats. They resonate with voters who are unhappy with the president, Congress and the economy and who have soured on the direction of the country, according to polls.

Some surveys, however, have lately shown a slightly positive uptick.

“It’s her voting record that’s probably being given more light of day by some of these outside groups that’s going to give her the most problems,” Lloyd Smith, executive director of the Missouri Republican Party, said of McCaskill. It “makes the hill for her a little tougher to climb.”

Some of the fattest wallets among the groups supporting Republicans belong to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce; Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies, a nonprofit group co-founded by Republican political strategist Karl Rove; and the 60 Plus Association, a conservative seniors advocacy group.

“I think people want a trusted messenger to give them information on issues,” said Rob Engstrom, the chamber’s senior vice president for political affairs. “That’s what we’re doing. We’re not making it personal. There are many folks on the center-left who are communicating as well. We welcome that debate.”

Independent groups leaning toward Democrats that have been active are the Patriot Majority PAC, Citizens for Strength and Security, and most recently VoteVets.

But Democrats such as McCaskill remain at a clear financial disadvantage on fundraising so far.

The outside groups “just keep beating her down and driving up her negatives,” said Steve Glorioso, who has helped run some of McCaskill’s earlier campaigns. “There are no rules. It’s the wild, wild West.”