Out-of-state groups are pumping last-minute cash into the Maryland attorney general's race, fueling a barrage of campaign ads, including $240,000 in TV commercials purchased by a Florida-based fund that won't reveal its donors.
The ads purchased by the Orlando-based Protecting Our Future Action Fund, which was formed Thursday, support Del. Jon S. Cardin of Baltimore County.
State Sen. Brian E. Frosh of Montgomery County — considered Cardin's main opposition in Tuesday's Democratic primary — is also benefiting from outside spending. For weeks, a group called Marylanders for Integrity in Government has been distributing negative mailings about Cardin. That group is funded by three labor unions, including one from New York City.
"This is relatively unprecedented for a Maryland attorney general's race," said Herbert C. Smith, a political science professor at McDaniel College. "It's one of those tipping-point elections, in which any small factor could be significant in the outcome. It's a very appealing target for interest groups. In circumstances like this, you could cement a friends-forever relationship with the winner."
The Protecting Our Future Action Fund lists as its treasurer former Florida state Del. Dick Batchelor.
Reached Friday, Batchelor, a campaign consultant, said those contributing to the advertising campaign were declining to reveal their identities. Batchelor said his clients were interested in fighting cyberbullying and crimes against children. He said the ads have a positive message about Cardin, who sponsored anti-cyberbullying legislation in the General Assembly.
"We're not doing any negative ads at all," Batchelor said.
The ads are scheduled to run on a range of cable channels believed to reach likely Democratic primary voters: MSNBC, BET, Lifetime and TV One, among others.
Frosh decried the last-minute creation of the fund in an email to supporters Friday. "We need to combat this barrage on TV from an out-of-state operation clearly trying to buy the election," he wrote.
The Marylanders for Integrity in Government political action committee that is supporting Frosh has taken a bare-knuckle approach. Funded through $150,000 in contributions from three labor unions — including a Washington office of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and a New York office of the Service Employees International Union — the committee has spent $53,000 on direct mailings to homes.
The mailings accuse Cardin of putting "Maryland citizens at risk for his benefit" when he misused Baltimore police resources during a stunt marriage proposal in 2009, noting the city experienced 11 gun crimes that night. Another of the PAC's mailings criticizes Cardin for filing for meal expenses during this year's General Assembly session while missing nearly 75 percent of his committee votes.
"In Jon's world, you can charge expenses to the state while playing hooky from work," the mailer states.
Pat Lippold, SEIU's political director for Maryland and Washington, said when the unions gave $150,000 to the anti-Cardin committee, they knew they would be used for negative campaigning.
"Polls showed Jon Cardin was ahead by leaps and bounds," Lippold said. "We knew that was largely related to the fact that he is the nephew of Ben Cardin, the highly respected senator. We thought it was important to educate the voters about the differences between the candidates."
Frosh said he learned about the PAC's donors when its officers filed a campaign finance report. He questioned why the group supporting Cardin won't do the same.
"This is an issue of transparency," Frosh said. "The people of Maryland have a right to know who is funding Jon Cardin's campaign."
Cardin said he had nothing to do with the independent expenditure. "I believe all parties should provide full disclosure," he said.
Local groups are also contributing to Cardin's campaign through the so-called "LLC loophole," in which people who own multiple businesses are allowed to give up to $4,000 from each account. Developers David Cordish and Edward St. John have contributed money through various LLCs to the Cardin campaign in recent weeks.
St. John-related LLCs gave Cardin $23,000 through six companies in the latest filing, while Cordish-related companies gave $20,000 through five LLCs, reports show. Neither developer responded to requests for comment.
Kevin Igoe, a political consultant who worked on Republican attorney general candidate Scott Rolle's campaign in 2006, said he didn't recall such committees or funds playing a large role when Douglas F. Gansler defeated Rolle to win the job.
"It's fairly new, and I think it's because more attorney generals around the country have become activist," he said.
Both Cardin and Frosh have spent heavily on television and radio ads this election, but with different strategies. Cardin's campaign has spent about $600,000 — focusing more heavily on the Baltimore area, where he spent about $400,000. Frosh has focused more on the Washington region, spending about $430,000 of his $780,000 radio and TV buys there.
Cardin's ad in the Baltimore area calls Frosh "desperate" and behind in the polls. On Sunday, the delegate has two rallies planned with his uncle, U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin, including one in Silver Spring.
The Frosh campaign says it plans to roll out a new radio ad Saturday morning recorded by Prince George's County Executive Rushern Baker. The campaign also has been running an ad featuring Rep. Elijah E. Cummings' endorsement of Frosh.
Del. Aisha N. Braveboy of Prince George's County, whose fundraising has lagged behind Frosh and Cardin, has not purchased television ads. Her campaign said she's continuing to reach out to voters in more grass-roots ways.
"She's using the resources that are available to her," said Braveboy's spokeswoman Doreen Williams.
On Friday, Braveboy announced the endorsements of Baltimore Comptroller Joan M. Pratt and Del. Jill P. Carter.
The race for attorney general has been unusual in that the candidate with the most money and high-profile endorsements — Frosh — has not been leading in the polls. Cardin was leading the field with support from 26 percent of likely Democratic primary voters, according to a poll for The Baltimore Sun published this month. Frosh had 16 percent and Braveboy 7 percent. More than 40 percent were undecided.
The three candidates are competing in Tuesday's Democratic primary. The winner of that election will face Republican Jeffrey N. Pritzker, a Towson attorney, and Libertarian Leo Wayne Dymowski, a parole commission hearing officer, in November.
Though polls have consistently shown Cardin with the lead, Smith said he believed Frosh is closing the gap
"Senator Frosh has been chipping away at that," he said. "It's a relatively low-information race until really late. In those cases, polls are notoriously unreliable. We'll find out how unreliable they are on Election Night."