In the run-up to the Nov. 2 elections, a new set of commercials attacking Democratic candidate Joe Sestak has hit the airways as the race between Sestak and Republican Pat Toomey has tightened.
The new ads — organized by the Emergency Committee for Israel and the Republican Jewish Coalition — come as part of a final stretch in the marathon effort to sway Jewish voters in a pivotal race as Republicans seek to take back — and Democrats struggle to hold on to — control of the U.S. Congress.
The Pennsylvania Senate race has become the nation's third most expensive, according to the Wesleyan Media Project, which tracks campaign spending. More than $12 million has been spent on television advertising alone since August, much of it coming from independent, noncampaign sources.
The emergence of this new kind of spending is an example of how the Supreme Court's January decision in Citizens United versus the Federal Election Commission has upended the rules, opening the door to corporate donations.
There's widespread disagreement over whether this new phenomenon is a positive or negative development for the electoral process, and whether it's good for Jewish interests.
The RJC's $1.2 million devoted to the Pennsylvania Senate race constitutes the most it has ever spent in a single state in a midterm election, according to the group's executive director, Matthew Brooks. Across the country, the Washington-based RJC is spending between $3 million and $4 million, he said.
For months, the RJC has attacked Sestak's record on Israel. While it is still taking the same tact in newspaper advertisements and direct mailings, the group's new round of TV commercials switches gears. The ads blast Sestak's call to have alleged terrorist mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed tried in a civilian court in Pennsylvania.
Mohammed, the alleged chief architect of the Sept. 11 terror attacks, has been in U.S. custody for seven years; the government's decision to try him in a civilian court, rather than in a military setting, has generated controversy, partly because such a trial would afford him the same rights as American citizens.
Extending Its Reach
Brooks said that the campaign represents an effort to extend its reach beyond Jewish voters. "If you're on television, you're reaching an extremely diverse audience," he said.
In response, a group called Human Rights First sponsored a smaller ad featuring a group of retired generals defending the idea of taking terrorism cases to trial in civilian federal courts.
For its part, the Emergency Committee for Israel, a Washington, D.C.-based group founded by conservative activists William Kristol and Gary Bauer, which first blasted Sestak on the Philadelphia airwaves over the summer, is back at it again.
This time around, the commercials are being paid for by the group's recently formed "SuperPac." These new entities can accept unlimited individual and corporate donations, and spend all the cash they want on campaign ads, as long as they don't give the funds directly to a candidate.
Noah Pollak, the group's executive director, denied that his group's efforts are aimed specifically at Jews. Instead, he argued that Israel is an issue most Americans care about.
"We wanted to hit an audience of ordinary voters," he said, referring to the decision to buy a spot during a Phillies playoff game.
The Emergency Committee has not disclosed how much it's spending on the Senate race.
While the campaigns themselves are apparently also breaking all records this season — new reports this week suggested that fundraising for House and Senate candidates could exceed the $2 billion mark — outside advocacy spending in House races nationwide has increased 73 percent since 2008, according to Michael G. Hagen, graduate chair of political science at Temple University. That trend has tilted in favor of Republicans by about three to one, said Hagen.
Leading the way is the GOP-focused American Crossroads, a SuperPac, and its related nonprofit, issue-advocacy group, Crossroads GPS — both linked to Republican operative Karl Rove. The groups have said that they intend to spend $65 million before it's all over.
In the local race, the majority of ads attacking Toomey are being paid for by Sestak's campaign or the Democratic Party, while the bulk of those attacking Sestak are financed by outside groups, according to observers.
As for the impact of all this spending, Adam Bonin, a lawyer specializing in campaign finance who sits on the board of the liberal Jewish Social Policy Action Network, sees it as a negative. He said that the new rules "shift money and discourse away from the candidate, and toward these less accountable entities. What it leads to is a more hostile and vicious kind of politics."
Brooks, on the other hand, said that the decision had expanded freedom of expression, and is allowing for more vigorous debate in the political marketplace.
He called the Supreme Court ruling and new campaign finance guidelines "a victory for the first amendment."
Brooks added that it gives organizations that "care about important policy issues greater freedom to speak out and make their voices heard."
The left-leaning group J Street also used its nonprofit status to run ads defending Sestak's Israel record over the summer, but it has not aired any lately.
Hadar Susskind, vice president of policy and strategy at J Street, said that it wasn't an issue of funding.
"I don't think it's the most effective thing for us to do," he said. "The fact that anybody else is running ads against him isn't going to change what we're doing — we're not reacting."
Hurt More Than Helped?
Asked if the Sestak campaign had asked J Street to pull back because the controversial group might be seen as more of a liability than an asset, Susskind said that it's illegal for the group to coordinate its efforts with the Sestak campaign.
J Street operates a separate political-action committee, which has steered roughly $150,000 in contributions from individuals to the Sestak campaign. The RJC operates its own PAC as well, which has given $5,000 to Toomey's Senate campaign.
Mark Aronchick, an influential Democratic fundraiser, asserted that the efforts of Emergency Committee and RJC to siphon Jewish voters from Sestak have backfired. After those two groups labeled Sestak anti-Israel, Jewish Democrats rallied to his defense and donated generously, he said. Aronchick said he hosted one of the largest private fundraisers for Sestak's campaign, though he declined to disclose the amount raised.
"In the end, they probably hurt Toomey more than helped Toomey," said Aronchick.
But according to Pollak, the Emergency Committee executive director, his group has succeeded in educating the public about Sestak's record.
How much influence any of these parties ultimately have on Election Day is yet to be seen.