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If the story of this election is the rise of outside spending, the lesson we at You Report Election 2010 learned is that following the money is next to impossible.

Though big, established political players like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees poured millions into television ads aiming to sway voters, dozens of new groups — mostly pro-Republican — came onto the scene with ad-buys ranging from small to enormous. And while many of these 501(c)(4) tax-exempt groups flooded the airwaves with attack ads paid for by an undisclosed list of donors, some small groups managed to make an oversized impact by using creativity, new media, and highly controversial messaging to gain the attention of voters and journalists alike.

Through our submission form and the Sunlight Foundation’s Sunlight Campaign Ad Monitor, readers helped us identify some of the best (and worst) independent expenditure ads, mailings, and robocalls around the country.

The vast majority of the independent expenditures we saw attacked Democratic incumbents, while a smaller number went after Republican challengers, took on Republican incumbents, or raised the issue of government spending in general. This comes as no surprise, as independent groups favoring Republicans have outspent those preferring Democrats by almost a two-to-one ratio.

While many groups highlighted the voting record of the candidate they attacked or backed as it related to their own group’s mission, some targeted unrelated vulnerabilities. For instance, we found a single-issue anti-abortion group attacked a candidate’s record on immigration, and a campaign finance reform group accused a Senate candidate of prosecutorial misconduct.

How much money was spent on independent expenditure ads for this election? The amount is difficult to pinpoint but the Center for Responsive Politics estimates nearly $394 million. Of that, about $193.5 million was spent by conservative-aligned groups, $186 million by liberal-allied groups, and the remaining $14.4 million was spent by “others,” according to their analysis.

Under federal election law, independent expenditure ads urge the election or defeat of specific candidates and must be purchased completely independent of the candidate with no coordination.

Below is a sampling of what we saw in the weeks leading up to today’s midterm elections.

  • American Action Network attacked Washington Democratic Sen. Patty Murray, Virginia 11th District Democratic Rep. Gerry Connolly, and Oregon 5th District Democratic Rep. Kurt Schrader for their fiscal records
  • American Crossroads made robocalls to Washington state voters urging them to back Republican Dino Rossi over “out of touch and out of control” Democratic Sen. Patty Murray
  • American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) ran TV ads in Wisconsin’s 8th Congressional District attacking Republican Reid Ribble on Social Security
  • American Future Fund ran nearly identical spots attacking vulnerable Democratic Congressmen in Georgia, Oregon, and Texas
  • Americans for Prosperity took aim at Democratic Congressman Zack Space in Ohio’s 18th District for his vote on climate change
  • Campaign for Michigan Families made anti-gay robocalls against an openly-lesbian Michigan state representative candidate
  • Campaign MoneyWatch, part of the Public Campaign Action Fund, attacked Colorado Republican Senate candidate Ken Buck and California Republican Rep. Dan Lungren over campaign finance reform
  • Citizens Against Government Waste launched a striking futuristic ad campaign against the growing national debt
  • Club for Growth PAC’s TV ads in Arizona’s 5th District attacked the record of Democrat Harry Mitchell
  • Crossroads GPS ran attack ads against Washington Democratic Sen. Patty Murray and then took aim at Nevada Democratic Sen. Harry Reid and attack ads in general
  • Keep America Safe and Americans in Contact PAC used new media to target Virginia Democratic Reps. Gerry Connolly and Jim Moran
  • National Organization for Marriage sent flyers to voters criticizing a Democratic Maine state representative for his vote to expand civil marriage to same-sex couples and joined with the Susan B. Anthony List to run Spanish-language TV ads against California Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer
  • National Education Association’s NEA Advocacy Fund attacked Colorado Republican Senate candidate Ken Buck on education
  • Progressive Change Campaign Committee and Democracy for America blasted Republican Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, but a local TV station refused to air the ad
  • Public Notice mocked elected officials of both parties for “spending and spending”
  • Revere America attacked Democratic Rep. John Hall in New York’s 18th Congressional District over healthcare reform
  • U.S. Chamber of Commerce TV ads criticized California Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer for her 28 years in Congress