Political interest groups working outside the traditional confines of campaign finance laws spent more than $4.3 million in two Maryland congressional races during this year's primary, according to newly released campaign finance reports, and their success in defeating two incumbents here could portend an expensive and aggressive effort nationwide to target other swing districts in the coming months.
Liberal groups have gone after Rep. Albert R. Wynn before, and conservative activists have long tried to unseat Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest. But this year they were finally successful, defeating two long-serving politicians in what, due to quirks of the national primary calendar, were some of the first congressional primaries in the nation.
Although the presidential primaries are almost complete, all but six states have yet to hold congressional primaries. That made the races in Maryland's 1st and 4th Congressional Districts test cases for how vulnerable incumbents might be in a year when voters appear profoundly dissatisfied with Congress and intent on change.
The lesson interest groups took is that this year, their money could be well spent. Groups that spent money in Maryland say they are eyeing races in Arizona, California, Iowa and Kentucky and are limited only by the ability to find viable candidates to challenge incumbents.
"This is going to put people on notice," said Michael J.G. Cain, director of the Center for the Study of Democracy at St. Mary's College of Maryland. "The days of independent congressional voting, if this is any indication, are numbered. Outside groups are going to amass a lot of money and come after you in the primaries."
Political activists, many of whom hail from other states, went after Wynn because of his initial support for the Iraq war and votes for a GOP-backed bankruptcy bill and a repeal of the estate tax. For Gilchrest, it was his opposition to the war, backing for detente with Iran and other issues. The outside groups took advantage of laws that exempt them from the usual contribution and expenditure limits that apply to political campaigns so long as they do not coordinate their efforts with candidates.
Matt Stoller, who runs the liberal blog OpenLeft, played a leading role in fundraising and in generating online support for Donna Edwards, who defeated Wynn. With the help of the "net roots," Edwards raised $400,000 for the primary from more than 8,000 donors, nearly half of the total funds she received from individual contributions.
Stoller said he and others are closely watching races in Iowa and Kentucky, although they aren't nearly as certain they will meet with success, partly because not all challengers are as strong as Edwards. She came within a few thousand votes of defeating Wynn in 2006 as a relative unknown.
In the 1st Congressional District, the Club For Growth, an anti-tax, anti-spending advocacy group, raised or spent a total of nearly $1.2 million to help state Sen. Andy Harris, who unseated Gilchrest despite having to compete against a well-known colleague, state Sen. E.J. Pipkin.
Pat Toomey, the president and chief executive officer of the Club For Growth, who ran unsuccessfully against Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter in 2004, said the group is now focused on several races in California and Arizona and has supported a pair of primary candidates in Pennsylvania, one of whom was successful.
"When incumbents see that even with the establishment behind them and all the senior party types and the huge financial advantage that incumbents almost always have, when they nevertheless lose, it sends a powerful message that you shouldn't lose touch with the voters," he said.
Advocates for campaign finance reform say that outside spending and fundraising practices, while legal, can make winning candidates beholden to special interests.
"We think candidates should be free to vote in the interests of their district and their conscience," said Nick Nyhart, president and chief executive officer of Public Campaign, which has been highly critical of the spending of special interests on elections. "But when this kind of spending takes place, it makes candidates aware of the threat and possibly too worried about crossing them when they have to make a difficult vote."
But leaders of the groups that spent money say their contribution was the ultimate form of democracy, helping voters oust entrenched politicians that had grown to ignore the core values of their districts.
"All of that money just means opposing points of view are being heard," Toomey said.
One of the biggest spenders in national politics is the Service Employees International Union, which got involved in both major Maryland races, funneling about $200,000 to help Gilchrest and $1.1 million for Edwards.
Terry Cavanagh, executive director of the SEIU Maryland-DC State Council, said the labor union's spending was important because of the early primary. He said he hoped their support of Donna Edwards sent a message not just to members of Congress and potential national candidates, but also to Maryland legislators.
The union will certainly continue to spend a lot of money on political races, he said, much of which is raised from rank-and-file members who contribute small amounts voluntarily. But money alone doesn't win races, Cavanagh said.
"There are a number of Democrats we're not too happy with nationally, mostly Democrats who have drifted away from the interests of working families, but you need somebody to beat somebody," he said. "You can't win with a nobody. Donna Edwards was a somebody."