(WOMENSENEWS) – As Democrats and Republicans wage an intense fight for control of the U.S. Senate in November's midterm elections, super PACs are concentrating on 10 races that poll as the most competitive because incumbents are in trouble or long-term senators are retiring.
Among these races, seven involve female candidates, which rewrites the usual script about sex and money.
Historically, the high cost of campaigning has prevented many well-qualified women from seeking higher office. But not this year, at least not in these key U.S. Senate bids.
Super PACs--a new form of political action committee that can raise unlimited funds--are hindering women's political prospects in some ways, as the primaries have already shown this year. But when the PACs get focused on female candidates, as they are here, the tide can also suddenly shift.
Three super PACs in particular are pouring millions into the seven races for the Senate, where women currently hold only 20 seats, one-fifth of the chamber.
In addition to the strategic calculations about weak incumbents and retirements, these races also carry the parties' hopes for improving their standing with female voters.
During the 2012 presidential election, Republicans lost the female vote by 11 percentage points. During the 2010 midterm election, turnout by female Democrats plummeted, which contributed to the Democrats losing the House and barely retaining control of the Senate.
Republicans need a net gain of six seats among the 36 contests to take control of the Senate for the first time since 2006.
Democrats meanwhile are determined to increase their edge, which is currently 51 Democrats to 47 Republicans, so that they can set the legislative agenda of Congress during the last two years of the Obama administration. (Two independent senators, when counted, add up to 100, the total number of senators.)
The U.S. Supreme Court's landmark decision in the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission case of 2010 opened the floodgates to a deluge of money from corporations, labor unions and wealthy individuals, notes Bill Addison, editorial director of the Washington-based Sunlight Foundation, a nonprofit group that supports accountability and transparency in government.
"Unlike the candidate who must adhere to the donation limits -- currently at $2,600 per individual -- super PACs can collect unlimited funds," Addison said in a phone interview. "In some cases, super PACs are collecting more money than the candidates' own committees."
Midwestern, Southern Races
As of Aug. 25, outside groups had raised more than $74 million to sway voters in two Midwestern states (Iowa and Michigan) and five Southern states (Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, North Carolina and West Virginia) where female candidates are jockeying to win these seven close races, found the Washington-based Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks campaign financing.
In the Middle West, GOP super PACs are backing two conservative Republican women--Joni Ernst in Iowa and Terry Lynn Land in Michigan--who are running for seats being vacated by long-term male Democrats.
In the South, Democratic super PACs are supporting centrist Democrats including incumbents Kay Hagan of North Carolina and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, who both face conservative Republican male challengers. Money is also going to Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, who hopes to unseat Republican Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader who is seeking a fifth term.
Democratic PACs are also hoping to break the GOP's hold on Georgia by electing Michelle Nunn to succeed Sen. Saxby Chambliss, who is retiring after two terms.
In West Virginia, two women--U.S. Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, a Republican, and West Virginia State Secretary Natalie Tennant, a Democrat--are vying for the seat of Sen. Jay Rockefeller, a Democrat who is retiring after 30 years.
"Although super PACs are prohibited from giving money directly to candidates or coordinating how they spend their money with the candidate, they often function as shadow campaigns because they were founded by or are led by party strategists or former aides of the candidate who know how to portray their candidates' positions in the best possible light," said the Sunlight Foundation's Addison.
Ideological super PACs like Women Vote!, a super PAC of Emily's LIST, which supports pro-choice female Democrats, and NextGen Climate, a new super PAC established by San Francisco billionaire Tom Steyer, have also aided some of the female candidates in the seven most-heated races.
But among the more than 1,100 groups that the Washington-based Center for Responsible Politics says have set up super PACs, three are waging particular influence in the seven hotly contested Senate races.
Americans for Prosperity
Founded by libertarian activist David Koch in 2004, this group has become one of the largest and most powerful conservative organizations in the United States under the direction of Tim Phillips, a former GOP strategist. Its website reports that the organization, based in Arlington, Va., has more than 2 million activists in 50 states who are dedicated to advancing limited government and free market principles.
Koch and his brother Charles, co-owners of Koch Industries in Wichita, Kan., have been major contributors, but it's not clear how much the billionaires have donated because the group is a 501copyright (4) organization that is not required to disclose donors. Under IRS rules, tax-exempt organizations are permitted to spend unlimited funds to influence elections so long as politicking is not their primary purpose.
In May, Politico estimated that based on the group's confidential memo to major donors, the nonprofit will spend more than $125 million to support conservative candidates in 2014. The publication, which focuses on political trends, noted that this amount would be unprecedented for a midterm election and would probably exceed the spending of the Republican and Democratic congressional committees.
Senate Majority PAC
This super PAC was founded in 2011 by Susan McCue, former chief of staff of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, to serve as a foil to GOP strategist Karl Rove's network of conservative donors. During the 2012 election cycle, it raised more than $42 million to ensure the Democrats' control of Congress, but it may exceed that total in 2014. As of Aug. 8, it had raised more than $30 million –more than any other super PAC--reported the Center for Responsive Politics.
In addition to labor organizations, such as the American Federation of Teachers and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Workers, it has attracted contributions from some of the Democratic party's biggest supporters, most of them male billionaires such as Fred Eychaner, chair of Newsweb Corp. of Chicago, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and hedge funder Jim Simons of New York City. Major female contributors included Mary Boies, a New York City lawyer whose well-known attorney husband David Boies also contributed, and Anne Bass, the Fort Worth, Texas, philanthropist.
Emily's LIST, the Washington-based organization that funds female Democrats who are pro-choice, set up Women Vote! in 2010 to make independent expenditures in hot races. In 2012, it spent $7.7 million, including $3.5 million to help Rep. Tammy Baldwin win a brutal battle for a Senate seat in Wisconsin.
In March, it established North Carolina Women Vote! to help Sen. Kay Hagan, who faces an uphill fight for a second term, and Georgia Women Vote! to help Michelle Nunn, former CEO of Points of Light, a nonprofit that promotes volunteerism, become the first woman elected from Georgia to serve in the Senate.
So far, the super PAC has spent $4.1 million, but will probably spend more this fall when the campaign heats up.
Its biggest donors include foundations, such as the Akonadi Foundation of Oakland, Calf., which seeks to advance racial justice, and the Barbara Lee Family Foundation of Cambridge, Mass., which advances women's representation in American politics. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the United Food and Commercial Workers Union and the American Federation of Teachers are other major donors.
Sharon Johnson is a New York-based freelance writer.
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