If you just watched ads on TV, you might think that the biggest issues in the Nebraska U.S. Senate campaign are where Democrat Bob Kerrey has lived, or how Republican Deb Fischer has paid for her family's cattle to graze.
One anti-Kerrey commercial declares, "Bob Kerrey is moving back to Nebraska. And he wants to bring his liberal agenda to our Nebraska home ... after living in New York City over a decade, Kerrey supports government run health care." (To see the full ad, click here.)
Graphic by Hilary Stohs-Krause
Searching for campaign contributions
Trying to track spending on political activities - including ads - can be confusing. Political parties, campaigns and some outside groups must report to the Federal Election Commission. (For a link to FEC information on outside spending in the Nebraska U.S. Senate race, in the primary and general election, click here.
Other groups, established as nonprofit "social welfare" organizations, do not have to report their spending. Campaigns track those groups' spending on ads by checking with television stations, which are required to maintain a file that can be seen by the public. But unless you hire a media buyer like the campaigns do, you have to go to the television station in person to look at the file. That's changing - starting this month, TV stations are required to put those files online. But for now, that applies only to the nation's 50 largest TV markets; Nebraska stations won't be included until 2014.
Meanwhile, an anti-Fischer ad warns, "There's still lots to learn about millionaire Deb Fischer. She said she's against wasteful government spending. But she's pocketed nearly $3 million, taking advantage of government subsidies available to less than one percent of Nebraska's cattle ranchers." (To see the full ad, click here.)
But those aren't the Fischer or Kerrey campaigns talking. They're outside groups: The anti-Kerrey ad was from the group Americans for Prosperity; the one against Fischer is from an organization called End the Gridlock.
Thanks to changes in campaign finance law, these outside groups are playing an increasing role in campaigns. Kerrey campaign manager Paul Johnson sees two big problems with this: the volume of money in the system and the lack of disclosure.
"The amount of money that is flowing through the Super PACs (political action committees) is extraordinary," Johnson said. "I think it has a perilous impact on democracy as we know it and the election system as we know it."
Fischer campaign manager Aaron Trost said outside funding has been a factor for some time.
"I don't think anybody ... does somersaults over outside money, outside groups - I don't think anybody is wild about that," he said. "But there's freedom of speech in this country."
In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a ban on independent campaign spending by corporations and unions. Critics complained that would set off a flood of spending and give well-financed groups undue influence over elections. In a C-Span interview, Justice Antonin Scalia belittled those claims: "If you believe that, then we ought to go back to monarchy," Scalia said, asking if the interviewer believed "that the people are such sheep, that they just swallow whatever they see on television or read in the newspapers?"
"No," Scalia declared, continuing, "the premise of democracy is that people are intelligent and can discern the true from the false and can discern the true from the false, at least when, as the campaign laws require, you know who is speaking."
Johnson, Kerrey's campaign manager, said that ignores the way things work in the real world of politics.
"Everybody loves to say they hate negative advertising. But that's where they get their information," Johnson said. "And that influences how people vote. So the notion that advertising doesn't influence the way people vote is ludicrous."
There's also a question about whether people really know who's speaking. Americans for Prosperity is required to disclose that it pays for ads, but since it's legally incorporated as a "social welfare" organization rather than a political one, it doesn't have to disclose who donated to it - although it's been widely reported that businessmen Charles and David Koch have played key roles.
Brad Stevens, Americans for Prosperity's Nebraska director, said a desire for anonymity is understandable. Stevens pointed to the backlash against the restaurant chain Chick-fil-A after its president expressed opposition to same-sex marriage.
"When you have that kind of antagonism, you can understand why some people want to engage in their First Amendment rights in the political process, but not have their company or their name or whatever groups they're affiliated with being harassed," he said.
That argument doesn't convince Jack Gould, issues chair for Common Cause Nebraska, a group that lobbies for open government.
"If you want to be secret, then maybe you shouldn't be involved in democracy. Secret organizations are not what democracy is all about," Gould said, adding, "If you're ashamed of your position, then maybe you shouldn't have that position."
Stevens confirmed that Americans for Prosperity has spent more than $1,000,000 opposing Kerrey so far. But Fischer campaign manager Trost said outside groups are opposing Fischer, as well.
"They're obviously heavily spending in this race," he said. "Recently, Mr. Kerrey has been benefitting from that, with the Nebraska Democrat Party running negative ads in the race. Recently, a liberal Super PAC started up running ads in this race."
Trost was referring to End the Gridlock, a group spending more than $300,000 on ads bashing Fischer for grazing cattle on federal lands at below-market rates, which are set by the federal government. A report filed with the Federal Election Commission shows nine contributors to the group - the largest being film producer Sidney Kimmel of Los Angeles.
Groups affiliated with former George W. Bush political strategist Karl Rove have also spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on ads attacking Kerrey. One of those groups, American Crossroads, reports its donors and spending to the Federal Election Commission, but another, Crossroads GPS, does not.
The Kerrey campaign proposed an agreement with the Fischer campaign to discourage such outside spending, but it was rejected. Trost said the proposal was incomplete and would not have banned half a million dollars of negative ads from the Nebraska Democratic Party, for example.
Looking ahead, Kerrey campaign manager Johnson said he expects more outside spending will attempt to influence voters.
"It has a major impact on the campaign to date, and I imagine those entities and others will be active for the remainder of the campaign, as well," he said.
But Fischer campaign manager Trost downplayed the significance of such spending.
"Outside groups are going to spend money here and people can argue about what the effect is," he said. "But at the end of the day, I think voters make up their own minds."
And while outside funding might be increasing, Trost said the Fischer campaign itself isn't relying on heavy spending.
"We certainly spent the least amount of money in the primary, and I'm sure Mr. Kerrey will outspend us in the general election," he said. Through June 30, Kerrey had raised almost $2.9 million, while Fischer had raised just under $1.7 million.
The next three months will determine how much the campaigns ultimately spend, and whether it is overshadowed by millions of dollars in outside money.