Austin Anthony / Daily News / AP

5 days in Kentucky: Following the dark money

Majority of spending on Senate race is by outside groups whose donors are often untraceable

This is the third in a five-part series, “Fed up in Kentucky,” exploring how political issues are playing out in personal ways in the Bluegrass State this election season.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Everywhere you go in Kentucky, political ads blast the airwaves as November's midterm elections loom.

Kentuckians have sat through 57,100 ads on TV alone, according to the Center for Public Integrity. That’s almost 500 hours of mudslinging, self-promoting and skeet shooting for just one race: the tight battle between Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes.

Running all those ads requires massive sums of money. The Kentucky race — which has the Senate’s most powerful Republican fighting the political battle of his life — is on target to be the most expensive in U.S. history. Spending has topped $43 million and is likely to break the record of $82 million spent in the 2012 Massachusetts Senate fight between Elizabeth Warren and Scott Brown. More than half that cash comes from groups outside Kentucky with no connection to the campaigns. In fact, it’s impossible to trace millions of those dollars.

The spending floodgates opened in 2010 when the Supreme Court struck down campaign spending limits. Ever since, political groups have been eagerly buying up ad time. 

“Last week we spent about a million dollars for a week’s buy, and this week it’s about $1.1 million,” said Louisville political operative Scott Jennings, who works for two groups outside the state that are laser-focused on keeping McConnell in office. Those two groups alone have sunk $10 million and counting into Kentucky.

“Some of the organizations that exist in the current campaign finance regime don't necessarily just exist because of an election. They exist because there’s an issue before Congress that somebody cares about and wants to make sure that people are educated on,” Jennings said. “We are fighting a race here in Kentucky that has national implications. If Mitch McConnell wins, he is most likely going to become the Senate majority leader.”

And if Grimes wins, Democrats will topple the Senate’s most vocal critic of President Barack Obama.

One of the groups Jennings works for, Kentuckians for Strong Leadership, has donors like a Texas oil company (Mewbourne Oil Co.) and private-equity firms in Connecticut (Bluff Point Associates) and New York (the Renco Group Inc.). They’re eager to support the pro-business Republican in hopes he’ll become majority leader, wielding more influence. 

The other group employing Jennings, Kentucky Opportunity Coalition, is funded with what’s known as dark money. Politically active nonprofits like the coalition may receive unlimited corporate, union and individual contributions without disclosing those donors’ identities. By law, the nonprofits are not allowed to coordinate with campaigns, but they can coordinate — and often do — with one another.      

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, dark money spending in political elections increased from about $5 million in 2006 to more than $300 million in 2012.

Kentucky has more dark money flowing into it than any other Senate race except Colorado’s.

Since groups like Kentucky Opportunity Coalition don’t have to report who is giving them all that cash, even people in Kentucky are in the dark about who is trying to influence their votes — and why.

“You listen to the commercials, and it sort of confuses you,” said undecided voter Angela Fugate, along the parade route at the Black Gold Festival in Hazard. She and her family were at the annual celebration of coal, which for so long fueled eastern Kentucky’s economy. Now the local economy is in crisis, and she says she can’t tell which Senate candidate has solutions. 

She echoes ads she’s seen on TV. 

Like Mitch said, it wasn’t his job to make jobs. But it is his job to make jobs,” she said. “And then they say Ms. Grimes is more against the coal.”

In an effort to influence voters like Fugate, outside groups have spent more than $24 million in Kentucky, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, an independent research group that tracks political spending. That’s $16 for every voter in the state. According to the center, dark money there has topped $10 million.

What is clear is that most of the dark money pouring in — 82 percent — has been used against Grimes.

Journalism professor Al Cross has covered Kentucky politics for 40 years and said the barrage of attack ads has put the Grimes campaign on defense. She’s now explaining she’s her own person, not an Obama in waiting.

“I find it strange that a campaign team with such good talent allowed their candidate to get defined by the other side before she defined herself,” said Cross.

It’s hard to outshout millions of dollars in ads. Fighting back, outside groups supporting Grimes are waging their own “ditch Mitch” efforts.

Despite all the political money and noise, Cross said Kentuckians aren’t hearing much real debate.

“I think the more money you have in an election, the less substantive discussion you have of the issues,” he said. “The candidates let their money and the outside money do the talking for them.”

To view the “Fed up in Kentucky” series, tune in to “Al Jazeera America News” with John Seigenthaler this Mon. to Fri. at 8 p.m. Eastern time.

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