You may have already noticed them when you plop down in front of the TV after dinner: negative campaign ads attacking congressional candidates running in Chicago's suburbs.
If you stick through the entire spot without changing the channel, you'll hear the name of the group that paid for the ad rattled off at the very end.
These groups are so-called "super PACs," political groups that are free to raise and spend unlimited amounts of money to influence elections.
Illinois has largely been spared the kind of negative presidential campaign ads that are bombarding swing states right now. But super PACs are currently tossing millions of dollars into congressional races in Illinois, a state that has emerged as a main battleground over control over the U.S. House.
Outside groups – including the congressional fundraising arms of the Democratic and Republican parties – have already pumped nearly $22 million into Illinois House races, according to federal election data.
More than $8 million of that has come from super PACs.
The groups are not allowed to coordinate with candidates or their campaigns, so they’re often seen as the new man-behind-the-curtain of American politics: They do not have to disclose who runs them, and some find ways to keep their individual donors secret.
WBEZ tracked down the three super PACs spending the most money in the state to find out who’s behind them and why they’re going negative.
The three are House Majority PAC, a Washington, D.C.-based group that supports Democrats; the Republican Now or Never PAC based in Kansas City, Mo; and The New Prosperity Foundation, a Chicago-based super PAC that also backs Republicans.
Those three particular super-PACs alone have dumped at least $2.2 million dollars into the contentious 8th Congressional District race, where incumbent Republican Joe Walsh, a Tea Party icon, is facing Democrat Tammy Duckworth, an Iraq war vet with experience in veterans affairs.
The contest has attracted more super PAC spending than any other Illinois congressional contest, according to federal campaign finance data.
But super PACs are also targeting congressional candidates in two other tight races here: The southwest suburban 11th District, where incumbent Republican Rep. Judy Biggert is facing former Democratic Rep. Bill Foster; and the 10th District, in the northern suburbs, where Republican Rep. Bob Dold is being challenged by Democrat Brad Schneider.
All told, these three super-PACs have spent at least $4.4 million dollars in those races – just over half of all congressional super-PAC money in the state.
“Clearly the endgame is to win”
The chairman of The New Prosperity Foundation, Ron Gidwitz, keeps offices on the 40th floor of a downtown Chicago office building, with breathtaking views of the city. Gidwitz has been active in Republican politics and business circles for a long time – he even launched an unsuccessful bid for Illinois governor in 2006.
He’s pretty clear about the aims of his super PAC, which its website says backs candidates who want smaller government and lower taxes.
“Clearly the endgame is to win,” Gidwitz said, meaning to keep the House majority Republicans won in the 2010 midterms.
To give you some context as to the power of outside spending, consider The New Prosperity Foundation has spent at least about $870,000 since mid-July. That means Gidwitz’s spending alone is outpacing the fundraising efforts of some of the Democratic candidates he’s opposing.
Gidwitz emphasizes the group’s transparency: It discloses its donors, it has a website, it even has a media coordinator who set up our interview.
So far, all of the money The New Prosperity Foundation has spent has fueled negative media against Democrats running in Illinois.
“If they’re truthful, why would I feel bad?” he said, when I ask about the negative advertising. “These candidates – both Republican and Democrat – need to stand on their record. That’s what this is all about.”
And he says he’s playing by the rules established by federal courts, including the Supreme Court’s decision in its Citizens United decision, which opened the door to unlimited political spending – a decision Gidwitz said leveled the playing field with Democrats, who enjoyed big-money support from labor unions.
Democrats ‘fight fire with fire’
Since the Citizens United decision came down in early 2010, Democrats from the president on down have slammed super PACs, saying they give corporate interests too much power to influence elections.
Take Tammy Duckworth, the 8th District Democrat, who’s been one of the biggest targets of negative super PAC ads in the state.
“I think it’s terrible,” Duckworth said when asked about super PAC ads in her race. “I think all of the super PACs need to be out of the race – Democratic ones, Republican ones, they all need to be out of the race.”
But that hasn’t stopped Democratic operatives like Ali Lapp, who heads up the Democratic-backing super PAC called House majority PAC.
“[If] a candidate asks us to get in their race, or tells us to stay out, we legally can’t even really listen to it,” Lapp said. “So we try to ignore all of those comments.”
Lapp said the laws governing groups like hers are “crazy” and “bizarre.”
Yet here she is, leading the super PAC that’s spent the more than any other on Illinois House races – at least $2.1 million in the suburbs alone.
“The reality is, we have to play by the rules that have been set out for us, and we cannot unilaterally disarm,” she said.
So Lapp says she’s targeting Republicans she thinks are too conservative for their district – candidates like Joe Walsh, a Tea Party icon. Lapp defends House Majority PAC’s plan to drop $2.4 million dollars into three suburban races, spending $800,000 a piece to oppose Walsh, Biggert and Dold.
“They’re hearing positive information about Joe Walsh from Joe Walsh, and they’re hearing loads of negative information about Tammy Duckworth from…the Missouri people who have decided that they wanna adopt this race,” Lapp said.
Those “Missouri people” are in charge of a Republican super PAC that’s dropped the most money into the Eighth District so far: about $1.8 million, all to back Joe Walsh.
The group is called “Now or Never PAC.”
“I would say that Joe Walsh, without outside support, may have struggled more than he is now,” said Tyler Harber, the group’s spokesman.
Harber says, for his super-PAC, that’s the point: To pick races where the Republican could win – if given just a little boost.
So who does the picking?
Now or Never PAC’s internal policy prevents him from naming the folks who decide where the money goes, Harber said.
“To preserve their privacy, if they’re not a donor then we – we generally do not talk about them,” he said.
Harber would only reveal that the group was started by a group of businessmen from Washington, D.C. and Missouri. He said decisions on how to spend money are made by a group of about a dozen political operatives and business people.
But he won’t tell me about the dozen or so people who are calling the shots, except to say they’re businessmen from Washington, D.C. and Missouri.
For now, it seems, Now or Never PAC is letting its attack ads do the talking.
And with about a month until Election Day, there’s still a lot of air time left.