By Andy Sullivan
ARVADA Colorado (Reuters) - Political groups that took advantage of loosened campaign-finance rules spent hundreds of millions of dollars in the 2012 U.S. presidential election. This year, they're cropping up in state and local races as well.
Wealthy individuals and interest groups of all stripes are increasingly setting up political committees that can steer unlimited sums to small-dollar contests for state legislature, sheriff and school board.
Four years after the Supreme Court ruled that Congress cannot restrict spending by political groups not directly affiliated with candidates, the "Super PACs" and other spending committees that sprung up in the wake of that decision are becoming a fixture in races farther down on ballot sheets, where their money can have a greater impact.
In some cases, they are looking to bypass a gridlocked Washington that likely will not be more productive after the Nov. 4 congressional elections. In other cases, local operators are adopting tactics first developed at the national level.
In Cumberland County, Maine, a property developer spent $100,000 on attack ads this spring in an unsuccessful attempt to defeat the county sheriff in a Democratic primary.
In Arkansas, a conservative entrepreneur routed money through a network of committees to help a political neophyte topple a Republican legislator who had worked with Democrats to expand health coverage for the poor.
Americans for Prosperity, a conservative network backed by the billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch, has sought to influence judicial contests in North Carolina and school board races in Tennessee and Wisconsin.
"Our activists are motivated to affect change in their own communities, and often enjoy seeing results that are more tangible than with working on national issues," said Americans for Prosperity spokesman Levi Russell.
The increased activity reflects a new focus at the state level by interest groups that have made little progress in Washington.
GUN CONTROL AT LOCAL LEVEL
Everytown for Gun Safety, a gun-control group backed by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, plans to spend $12 million on a ballot initiative in Washington state and legislative races in Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Minnesota and Nevada to counteract the pro-gun influence of the National Rifle Association. Though firearms restrictions foundered in Congress in 2013, several states have since passed measures of their own.
"Washington's broken, not just on guns but on many issues," said John Feinblatt, the group's president.
It's not easy to track outside spending at the state level, as reporting requirements vary and many states don't require any sort of disclosure at all. In the 21 states tracked by the National Institute on Money in State Politics, a watchdog group, independent spending jumped from $175 million in 2006 to $245 million in 2010.
The amount is likely to jump by a similar amount this year, said Paul S. Ryan, senior counsel at the Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan watchdog group. "It's often the way things work in money and politics: practices are developed at the national and federal level, and those that work are replicated at the state and municipal level," Ryan said.
LESS MONEY TO INFLUENCE LOCAL POLITICS
Independent groups have a mixed record at the top of the ticket, where candidates for governor and the U.S. Senate typically have substantial war chests. It is a different story further down the ballot, where candidates often have limited name recognition and their budgets amount to thousands, rather than millions of dollars.
Colorado state Senate candidate Rachel Zenzinger, a Democrat, has struggled to rebut TV ads and mailers that accuse her of voting to use taxpayer money for a trip to China while serving on the city council in the Denver suburb of Arvada.
Zenzinger has never been to China, and official records show she sponsored a measure to prohibit public money for a proposed trip to visit a sister city there.
Colorado Citizens for Accountable Government, the Republican-funded group responsible for the ad, maintains it is accurate.
Zenzinger has raised at least $240,000, nearly twice as much as her Republican challenger, and outside Democratic groups have also spent more than $120,000 to boost her candidacy.
Still, it's been difficult to fight back against the ad, she said. "It's my reputation that's at stake here. If they're saying stuff that's blatantly false, it could affect the outcome of this election," Zenzinger said.
(Additional reporting by Gabriel Debenedetti; Editing by Frances Kerry)