The doctored photo on the mailer showed a Republican state Senate candidate arm-in-arm with conservatives such as Rush Limbaugh and Sarah Palin, who are unpopular in the suburban legislative district east of Seattle.
Yet the candidate the ad was designed to help wasn't impressed. He declared that the independent group behind the mailing was "flushing $20,000 down the toilet" by sending out the Photoshopped images of his opponent.
"Why don't they send out something with the actual votes he's taken, which show his conservative views?" asked Democratic state Sen. Mark Mullet, a Democrat, who has no control over the group known as Mainstream Voters of Washington.
The same type of outside spending is growing quickly in state and local elections across the country. Independent expenditures, as they are called, have piled up in governor's races in North Carolina and Montana, in the state Supreme Court contest in Wisconsin and the attorney general contest in West Virginia, to name just a few.
In some cases, the outside spending surpasses the amounts raised by the candidates. The nonpartisan National Institute for Money in State Politics found in a report issued this month that state-level independent expenditures in the 17 states for which it has data more than doubled from 2006 through 2014, rising from $139 million to $290 million. The biggest share of the spending attempted to influence races for governor.
Outside groups are attracted to state legislative races and campaigns for governor, attorney general and other statewide offices because they hope to influence state decisions that resonate nationally on issues such as abortion, guns, marijuana or minimum wage.
Legislatures also control the redistricting process in most states. That allows the party in power to draw the political boundaries that largely determine who controls the U.S. House. Democrats are trying to regain their influence in legislative chambers ahead of the next round of redistricting while Republicans are trying to hold on after historic gains made in recent years.
In the Washington state race, independent groups have spent more than $900,000 on the contest between Mullet and his challenger, Republican Chad Magendanz, a GOP state representative. That's compared with $632,000 spent so far by the candidates' own committees, according to campaign filings.
The race is one of the most competitive in the Washington Senate, where Republicans hold a narrow advantage. Both candidates said they believe the outside groups are concerned with control of the Senate, not the issues that concern the district.
Spending by outside groups has risen dramatically in recent years at every level of politics. That's partly because of the U.S. Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision, which ruled that political spending by corporations, unions and other groups could not be limited as long as they do not coordinate with campaigns.
The spending represents a change in the way politics work, said Michael Malbin, executive director of the nonpartisan Campaign Finance Institute in Washington, D.C. He said the biggest campaign donors used to be those with purely economic interests before state governments.
But with the rise of independent spending, he said, "there has been a shift toward nationalized organizations giving, and the nationalized organizations tend to be highly partisan and ideological."
In many cases, the independent groups do not have to disclose their individual donors. As a result, said University of Kentucky political scientist Matthew Voss, "You tend to get nastier and sometimes less honest attacks with this outside money."
Outside spending has flooded into races for seats in the Kentucky House, the only state legislative chamber in the South controlled by Democrats.
The pro-Democratic group Kentucky Family Values and multiple Republican-aligned groups have put money into several races, including a rematch of a close special election from earlier this year that helped Democrats retain control.
Kentuckians for Strong Leadership, which receives money from companies, individuals and state and national GOP groups, reported raising $1.3 million and spending $450,000 statewide. The group has reserved commercial slots on Lexington TV stations starting Oct. 31.
Most states prohibit the independent expenditure groups from coordinating with candidates' campaigns. In Washington state, Magendanz said that means candidates often get blamed for attacks on their opponents even if they had nothing to do with the criticism.
A group called Working Families, funded by another group that receives its money from corporate groups and Republican organizations, has run TV ads saying that Mullet, the Democrat, "thinks the laws don't apply to him" and claiming that he intimidated police officers to try to avoid traffic tickets.
Mullet said "there's not a shred of truth" to the accusation.
Magendanz also objects to how the independent ads portray him.
"It's just funny that they're painting me as an extremist," he said, explaining that he and Mullet have similar views on many social issues.
Follow Mulvihill at http://www.twitter.com/geoffmulvihill .