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WASHINGTON - One of the inaugural events of Minnesota's 2008 political season was a candlelight vigil on a drizzly night last fall.

Outside the Woodbury office of U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, nearly 200 protesters chanted "Override!" -- bolstering a $1.5 million national media campaign attacking Republicans in a veto battle over children's health insurance. More than $250,000 of it was spent against Bachmann in billboards, radio and television ads.

But none of this was done by a political party or candidate. It was orchestrated by two independent groups: the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), and Americans United for Change, a national coalition for liberal causes.

This year, advocacy groups unaffiliated with the two major parties are becoming a bigger part of the ever-growing onslaught of political cash, adding their unlimited bankrolls to what is expected to be the first billion-dollar presidential election in history.

And Minnesota, a key political battleground, is at the center of the spending bonanza, which is occurring despite new campaign finance laws intended to curb the influence of political money.

"This is not like the stock market, which goes up and down," said Fred Wertheimer, head of the national campaign finance reform group Democracy 21. "This only goes up."

As left-leaning groups buy ads against Bachmann and Republican Sen. Norm Coleman, on the other side of the political spectrum, a group called Defense of Democracies took aim at freshman U.S. Rep. Tim Walz last week. It is running $40,000 in TV ads in southern Minnesota, attacking him for siding with other House Democrats in a showdown over warrantless wiretaps.

Like many of the new special-interest lobbies that have entered the fray in recent weeks and months, Defense of Democracies declines to reveal its benefactors.

Americans United for Change does not have to list its donors, either, though the group has disclosed that it spent $100,000 against Bachmann and a similar amount last summer attacking Coleman over the war in Iraq.

That comes on top of the $150,000 spent against Bachmann by SEIU, the nation's fastest-growing union and one of its top-spending advocacy organizations, with more than $25 million in political expenditures in the 2006 election cycle.

'Water balloon'

Political analysts differ on whether this growth in spending by outside groups is a direct result of the 2002 federal restrictions on "soft money" -- the unlimited donations that corporations, unions and wealthy individuals used to funnel through the two major political parties.

But it's clear the law has accompanied a dizzying proliferation of nonprofit advocacy groups -- think Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and -- financed by big money donors that used to be able to give unlimited amounts of money to the parties.

"Money and politics is like a water balloon," said David Schultz, a Hamline University political science professor. "When you squeeze it in one place, it's going to go somewhere else."

Federal election spending by independent political organizations jumped from $125 million in the 2001-02 election cycle to $143 million in the 2005-06 cycle, according to the Campaign Finance Institute, a nonpartisan research group in Washington. Also in 2006 came at least $90 million more in independent political spending by an array of business, labor and social welfare groups.

That means that in the last election cycle, outside groups together spent more than the combined $223 million that national parties spent on their own in support of their candidates.

As the role of these independent groups grows still more this year, so will the debate about who they are and how they should be held accountable.

"The voters don't know who the communication is coming from, and they ought to know, because there could be some very self-interested people behind it," said Stephen Weissman, associate director for policy at the Campaign Finance Institute.

Issues, not candidates

The Oct. 16 rally outside Bachmann's office illustrates the ability of independent groups to crank up the political heat on candidates.

The rally, organized by SEIU, took place as three competing DFL challengers were just starting to ramp up their campaign organizations to challenge Bachmann, a social conservative and favorite DFL target.

The $250,000 in ads paid for by SEIU and Americans United for Change easily outstripped the $37,000 spent by the end of 2007 by Elwyn Tinklenberg, who has emerged as Bachmann's leading DFL opponent.

The SEIU, like other big unions, has a national political action committee (PAC), subject to the same contribution and disclosure rules as other PACs. But it is also organized as a "527" group, a moniker taken from the IRS code under which many other independent groups are authorized. As such, it can spend union funds on political ads, so long as it doesn't explicitly call for the election or defeat of a candidate.

Although the SEIU has endorsed Tinklenberg, the union brands its ads against Bachmann as issue advocacy rather than electioneering, noting they urged Bachmann to support expansion of a children's health insurance program.

"We concentrate on the issues, not the candidates," said Rick Varco, political director of SEIU Health Care Minnesota.

It's a fine line. One of the union's radio ads characterized Bachmann as being willing to spend "billions for Iraq" at the expense of children in her district.

Critics say special-interest group ads can be a polarizing force in politics.

But 527s aren't the only new players in the game. Other independent groups have been gravitating toward another section of the tax code, known as 501(c). Unlike 527s, these organizations don't have to disclose their donors.

But they, too are pulling in money that the major parties used to receive. And their issue advocacy, like the anti-Bachmann ads run by Americans United for Change, often echo those of their 527 cohorts -- and the parties with whom they're allied.

"It's all about putting pressure on people to do the right thing," said Americans United spokesman Jeremy Funk.

Fighting back

Because pressure is felt most acutely by politicians facing tough electoral challenges, the bulk of the independent expenditures in Minnesota so far have targeted two freshmen in competitive districts: Bachmann and Walz.

In Walz's case, the issue is maintaining the Bush administration's wiretap authority in suspected terrorism cases.

The TV ad by Defense of Democracies, a 501 (c) group suggests that opponents of the new surveillance bill are leaving U.S. intelligence services "crippled."

Walz said the group's "fear-mongering" had reached "a new low."

Bachmann and Walz have fought back by raising more than a million dollars a piece, contributing to the overall sense of a political "arms race" in this year's elections.

Bachmann "knows that she's targeted by the outside liberal interests," said Michelle Presson, her chief of staff. "But we're confident the people of the Sixth District in Minnesota can make up their own minds."

Kevin Diaz • 202-408-2753


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