LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Two groups with close ties to Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell are on track to spend nearly $20 million on television advertisements to sway Kentucky voters, a staggering amount for a single race that stands as a textbook example of the use of outside money in a tight contest.
While the effort began more than a year ago, the majority of the advertising by the Kentucky Opportunity Coalition and Kentuckians for Strong Leadership has aired since McConnell and Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes won primaries in mid-May.
Much of it is relentlessly negative toward the Democratic challenger and President Barack Obama, who is highly unpopular in the state. "Liberals coast to coast are rolling out the red carpet for Alison Grimes. She's backed by Obama's biggest fundraisers," said one early ad.
"Obamacare, the war on coal, big spending, higher taxes. That's Obama's agenda. And Alison Grimes supports Obama," said another.
Charly Norton, a spokeswoman for Grimes, said that the senator's "millionaire and billionaire cronies have targeted this race more than any other in the country." She added McConnell has called in the "DC special interest cavalry to help bail him out, but it's not working as our campaign remains...positioned to win on November 4th."
Federal law prohibits any coordination between the McConnell campaign and the two groups, one a SuperPAC and the other a nonprofit, often referred to as a "c4" for the section of law that governs its operations. At the same time, the groups' efforts intensified this spring, when the senator took something of an advertising breather after he won his primary over tea party challenger Matt Bevin.
One or the other outside organization was on the air almost nonstop from May until Labor Day, an advertising campaign that coincided with a run of polls that indicate erosion in Grimes' support at a time McConnell is plagued with chronically weak favorability ratings of his own.
Democrats strongly dispute the public surveys, and say the race remains exceedingly tight. The party's senatorial campaign committee is on the verge of an intensive round of television advertising to boost Grimes as the race enters its final five weeks.
The groups backing McConnell also invested in radio and Internet ads and T-shirts in their drive to return the Kentucky Republican to the Senate for a sixth term, often emphasizing the same issues that the senator mentions in his own advertising.
"We have owned rural radio...and coal country since the (campaign's) beginning," said Scott Jennings, a spokesman for the two groups. He referred to advertising alleging that Grimes would back policies detrimental to an industry reeling from the loss of thousands of jobs.
SuperPACs first came to prominence in the 2012 presidential campaign, and Center for Responsive Politics lists more than 70 in existence this year to help individual candidates. It's not known how many campaigns are backed by the same combination that supports McConnell.
Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21 — a nonprofit, nonpartisan group that analyzes the influence of money in politics — said the roles played by both SuperPACs and political nonprofits permit donors to circumvent the $5,200-per-person cap that federal law sets for contributions to individual candidates.
"When you have a SuperPAC and a c4 focused on one candidate, the only purpose of the c4 is to allow donors to give secret money to the candidate," he said. "The money isn't secret from the donors or the candidates, it's only secret from the American people."
Kentuckians for Strong Leadership, a SuperPAC, may take unlimited donations and must disclose its donors. It may advocate directly for a candidate's victory or defeat. Kentucky Opportunity Coalition does not have to disclose its donors, and is limited in its advocacy.
Other groups take a similar two-track approach in the increasingly important world of independent political spending. Associates of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid aid Democratic candidates through Senate Majority PAC and Patriot Majority.
Republican strategist Karl Rove backs a pair of groups, American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS, operating under the same general guidelines.
Unlike the organizations supporting McConnell, the groups aligned with Reid and Rove are national, airing advertising in numerous states with key Senate races.
The Kentucky groups have a single-state focus, although they rely heavily on Crossroads' political consultants and have received donations from some of Crossroads' contributors. Stephen Law, president of both Crossroads organizations, is on the three-member board of KSL. Law is also former chief of staff for McConnell and served under former Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, the senator's wife.
On its website, KOC says it "seeks to be a positive voice for those who seek to make our commonwealth a better place."
To that end, it ran a television commercial in August that said Grimes' attacks on McConnell had been "exposed as blatantly dishonest, phony, a throwback to Obama's lies." It added that Grimes is "bankrolled by Obama elites who oppose our way of life," and concluded, "Alison Grimes: Beholden to Obama. Lying to us."