By Kim Palmer
CLEVELAND, Ohio (Reuters) - Third-party political money is already pouring into Ohio again after the state had one of the most expensive election fights ever in November.
Nearly $55 million was raised in a battle over public worker collective bargaining rights that ultimately saw a union victory last month.
Now political groups have begun funneling money into the 2012 Ohio U.S. senatorial race, with political action committees targeting Democratic incumbent Sherrod Brown.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce alone has spent approximately $1.5 million in media buys since November to defeat Brown in 2012, according to Ohio Democratic Party officials.
J.P. Fielder, communication director for the Chamber, told Reuters he could not verify the $1.5 million number but confirmed the group was already involved.
"This is the earliest we have ever gone into an election," he said, adding that the Chamber plans more media buys in the state. "We will be very intense across the country but especially in Ohio," Fielder said.
According to Justin Barasky, Ohio Democratic Party press secretary, "More third-party money has been spent in an effort to defeat Sherrod Brown to date than any other Senate candidate in the country."
Pointing to a National Journal ranking of Brown as the Senate's most liberal member last year, Fielder said, "We are holding Sherrod Brown accountable for a record which is more liberal than the state of Ohio."
Another non-Ohio based group spending money in an effort to defeat Brown is the Virginia-based Crossroads GPS. Nate Hodson, director of state and regional media, told Reuters the group has spent $800,000 for two advocacy television ads in 2011.
American Crossroads has spent tens of millions of dollars to defend and elect Republican candidates to federal office and counts former White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove and former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie as advisers.
A conservative group for older Americans, 60 Plus, and the Concerned Women for America Legislative Action Committee have also spent close to $1 million between them against Brown, the Democratic Party says.
Out of state interest in Ohio's politics hit a peak this year with the large contributions coming into the state on both side of the "Issue 2" collective-bargaining fight, a November ballot measure that brought the repeal of restrictions on public employee unions passed by the Republican-controlled legislature.
Groups in favor of restricting union bargaining rights, including the Alliance for America's Future, spent about $730,000 in the month leading up to the Ohio's election and a Washington-based group, Citizens United, paid $100,000 for a media buy right before election day.
On the pro-union side the National Education Association spent $1.4 million and among others the AFL-CIO and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees contributed around $1 million each to We Are Ohio, the main organization supporting repeal.
In the end, the union forces heavily outspent pro-business groups who had backed the legislation.
We Are Ohio was responsible for around $42 million in spending, compared with about $12 million for Building a Better Ohio, which supported keeping the restrictions on unions.
(Editing by Jerry Norton)