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Originally published October 25, 2010 at 10:02 PM | Page modified October 26, 2010 at 9:59 AM

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Murray-Rossi race draws $12M in independent spending

Independent groups have poured more money into the race between Patty Murray and Dino Rossi than in all but two U.S. Senate contests, a flood of spending that reflects both a tight battle and the role of large — and secretive — donors in this year's elections.

Seattle Times Washington bureau

Negative tilt to outside spending

Independent groups have spent more than $12 million in Washington's U.S. Senate race. How the spending breaks down:

Supporting Patty Murray: $500,000

Opposing Dino Rossi: $4.7 million

Supporting Dino Rossi: $830,000

Opposing Patty Murray: $6.1 million

Source: Center for Responsive Politics

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WASHINGTON — Independent groups have poured more money into the race between Sen. Patty Murray and Dino Rossi than in all but two Senate contests, a flood of spending that reflects both a tight battle and the role of large — and secretive — donors in this year's elections.

Independent groups have paid for more than $12 million in advertising on behalf of either Murray or Rossi, according to the latest tally from the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonprofit government watchdog group. Only Colorado and Pennsylvania have had more independent expenditures among the 37 Senate races this year.

The outlays in Washington state are part of a record $168 million in outside spending during this election cycle by conservative groups not directly tied to the Republican Party. Liberal groups outside of Democratic Party committees have spent $75 million.

Many of those groups have been unfettered by Supreme Court rulings that eased requirements for certain nonprofits to disclose their donors while removing curbs on political spending by corporations and unions as long as they're not coordinated with candidate campaigns.

Rossi has benefited from $6.9 million in independent expenditures, in the form of ads that urged viewers to either vote for him or against Murray. That's more than the $5.6 million that Rossi collected in campaign contributions through the end of September, and more than twice what he had spent from his campaign treasury through that period.

On top of that, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has donated heavily to Republican candidates, spent $1 million in the past week on broadcast ads that mentioned either Murray or Rossi or both. The chamber's expenditures are categorized differently because its ads do not specifically endorse a candidate.

Murray received $5.2 million worth of uncoordinated expenditures on her behalf. Nearly $1.5 million of that came from Commonsense Ten, a Democratic independent-expenditure committee registered in June. The group is allowed to accept unlimited contributions but must disclose donors.

Commonsense Ten was co-founded by Democratic strategist Jim Jordan, a former aide to Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass. The group has spent about $2.7 million in advertising nationwide; more than half has gone to anti-Rossi ads. Its other Republican targets have included Rep. Roy Blunt, running for the Senate from Missouri, and Colorado Senate candidate Ken Buck.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has shelled out an additional $2.6 million in the race, virtually all of which went to pay for ads attacking Rossi. The National Republican Senatorial Committee has spent even more, $2.8 million, on anti-Murray ads.

One-third of Rossi's outside spending, or $2.6 million, came from Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies, one of two independent groups tied to GOP strategist Karl Rove. As a so-called 501(c)(4) nonprofit, Crossroads GPS can accept unlimited contributions from individuals and corporations but can keep donors anonymous.

Crossroads GPS spent $1.2 million on two television ads against Murray in the past couple of weeks. In fact, the group has directed more than 75 percent of its $10 million in total ad buys across the country against three Democratic Senate candidates — Murray, Alexi Giannoulias of Illinois and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada.

An affiliate Rove group, American Crossroads, does have to divulge its donors. Among its major backers is Bob Perry, a Texas homebuilder who financed the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth campaign that helped sink Kerry's presidential bid in 2004.

Tom Rudolph, a campaign-finance expert at the University of Illinois, said the flow of third-party money is less a worry than the secrecy over its source. Lacking identity of the outside donors, Rudolph said, it's impossible for voters to gauge whose interests a candidate purports to represent.

Full disclosure about donors won't guarantee that the electorate will cast informed votes, Rudolph said. "But we can pretty much be sure that they won't if they don't have the information," he said.

The heavy spending by third-party groups in the Washington Senate race is unusual but not surprising, said Bill Allison, editorial director of the Sunlight Foundation, a government transparency group in Washington, D.C.

The Murray-Rossi race is one of several toss-up contests that could determine whether the GOP retakes control of the Senate.

"Both parties think this is a race they can win," Allison said.

He said voters should worry about influence of money even more after the election. That's because whichever winner arrives in Congress, "there will be a bunch of people sitting at the table that otherwise wouldn't be at the table."

Kyung Song: 202-662-7455 or ksong@seattletimes.com

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