WASHINGTON -- Democratic Senate candidates Elizabeth Warren and Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) may be soaking up national attention from progressives during the 2012 campaign season, but the GOP has its eye on Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), whose race is attracting more third-party spending by Republicans than any other Senate contest.
Outside conservative groups not officially affiliated with the Republican Party have spent nearly $2.9 million on the Ohio Senate race, according to numbers compiled by a Senate Democratic campaign operative. Big spenders include the U.S. Chamber of Commerce ($1.5 million), the 60 Plus Association ($723,338), Crossroads GPS ($506,647) and Concerned Women for America Legislative Action Committee ($200,077). Brown is the only candidate 60 Plus has targeted.
After Ohio, the Senate race with the highest amount of third-party spending from outside conservative groups is in Florida, which has seen more than $1.4 million pumped in, according to the same set of data. In that race, Rep. Connie Mack (R) and several other Republicans are vying for the chance to face Sen. Bill Nelson (D.).
Brown has a strong populist record, and the Washington Post has referred to him as "something of a modern-day Paul Wellstone," referring to the late progressive Minnesota senator. He is being challenged by the 34-year-old Ohio State Treasurer Josh Mandel (R), who is known as a strong conservative and an aggressive fundraiser.
Recent polls show Brown maintains a comfortable lead on Mandel, but it's clear that Republicans see the senator as vulnerable and sense an opportunity to pick up the key seat in 2012.
"Sherrod Brown is an important target this cycle, because his liberal, job-killing record is far outside the mainstream with voters in Ohio," said Jahan Wilcox, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. "Brown's record of voting with President Obama 98 percent of the time -- which includes voting for ObamaCare and the failed $825 billion stimulus -- is why we believe he will be defeated next year."
"In an anti-incumbent year, Ohio's incumbent Democrat Senator is voting significantly to the left of his constituency and against a popular and well-funded Republican who is running a first rate campaign. This will be one of the most competitive Senate races of the cycle, no matter how you slice it," said Jonathan Collegio, a spokesman for Crossroads GPS.
A U.S. Chamber of Commerce ad released last month attacked Brown for having a "tax-raising, job-killing record." The Ohio Democratic Party -- and Brown's wife, a prominent political columnist in the state -- sharply criticized the Chamber for altering a photograph of the senator in order to make him appear haggard and unkempt in the ad.
The high amount of the Chamber's ad buy in Ohio is significant because the group said publicly that it spent "more than $1 million" on its initial round of political ads in Ohio, Iowa, Montana, Washington, Pennsylvania and Nevada. Yet given the $1.5 million the group spent in Ohio, the total of the six-state ad buy is likely significantly over $1 million.
Chamber spokesman J.P. Fielder did not confirm the amount of the ad buy in Ohio, noting that spending is only required to be disclosed 30 days before the primaries and then again 60 days before the general election.
"It's an incredibly important race for us to highlight Sherrod Brown's 9% voting record with the US Chamber," he said.
Concerned Women for America and 60 Plus did not return a request for comment regarding their spending in Ohio.
"Out of state special interests are clearly worried about Josh Mandel's numerous legal and ethical problems and have made Sen. Brown their top target in an effort to boost his ethically challenged candidacy because they want someone on the side of their special interest friends instead of Ohio's middle class," said Ohio Democratic Party spokesman Justin Barasky. "Josh Mandel refuses to support Sen. Brown's efforts to fight against job killing policies like China's currency manipulation and bad trade deals, or the GOP budget that privatizes Medicare."
The Ohio race is not attracting nearly as much national attention from progressives as are some other races, particularly the ones in Wisconsin and Massachusetts. At a recent fundraiser in Philadelphia, Brown and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) attracted a crowd of about 100 people. A later fundraiser with Baldwin and Warren organized by the same host drew nearly three times the crowd, according to a Democratic donor who attended both events.
The state will, however, be central to determining control of the Senate. Other critical races will be in Florida, Nevada, New Mexico, Virginia and Wisconsin, according to Stuart Rothenberg of the Rothenberg Political Report. Democrats currently control five of those seats.
Outside spending flourished during the 2010 election cycle, the first after the Supreme Court issued its ruling on Citizens United, which opened the floodgates to more corporate influence in politics. Groups like Crossroads GPS and the Chamber are required to disclose how much they spend, but they do not have to reveal their donors.