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Outside groups outspend candidates in 26 House races

Redistricting sparks battles

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Editor's note: This story was also published by the Center for Responsive Politics, where Viveca Novak is the editorial and communications director.

Illinois' 17th Congressional District looks like it was drawn by an X-acto knife on crack, pitted with divots large and small and tendrils leading nowhere.

This misshapen plot of land, dubbed the "rabbit on a skateboard," is the result of a redistricting process that made it slightly more Democratic territory.

That means first-term Rep. Bobby Schilling, a Republican, doesn't exactly have a smooth glide-path to re-election. In fact, he’s in a fight — an expensive one. Through Oct. 17, Schilling and his Democratic opponent, Cheri Bustos together have spent $3.3 million on the race ($1.9 by Schilling, $1.4 million by Bustos).

But that's not the half of it. Another $6 million has been spent by outside groups, a cool $2.7 million more than the candidates themselves have laid out.

That makes the contest one of 26 House elections in which outside spending adds up to more than spending by the candidates, according to Center for Responsive Politics data.

(Totals are through Oct. 17, the last date for which candidate spending data is available.)

Clearly in each case the groups saw their assistance was needed and that there was a good chance their candidate could win if they stepped in. In several instances, such as the Illinois 17th, it was plain that changes in the district's boundaries opened the door to a possible Democratic pickup. Elsewhere, redistricting has handed opportunity to the Republicans.

In the Schilling-Bustos faceoff, most of the outside spending can be attributed to the heavy- hitting party committees: The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee together have spent more than $4.5 million as of Oct. 30, the vast majority of it badmouthing the other party's candidate.

But other groups have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars each in the race: On the liberal side, they include Women Vote!, the Service Employees International Union, House Majority PAC and AFSCME; the conservative big spenders have included the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the New Prosperity Foundation and Karl Rove's Crossroads GPS.

The disparities between candidate outlays and outside spending are in some cases much more dramatic than in Illinois' 8th. The 8th District of Minnesota (one of our Hot Races), for example, is on that list: Republican incumbent Rep. Chip Cravaack had spent $1.2 million through Oct. 17, while Democrat Rick Nolan had spent just $536,000.

But outside spending comes to $5 million as of Oct. 17 — about three times the candidates' combined outlays. The House party committees accounted for about half of that, but the conservative American Action Network spent $772,000 (which has since leaped to $1.7 million) and the liberal House Majority Committee laid out $632,000 (since up to $762,000).

That race is one of two in the House where even non-party outside spending had outstripped that of the candidates by more than $500,000 by Oct. 17.

The other is California's 10th District, another re-drawn piece of territory, where freshman GOP Rep. Jeff Denham was hoping to hold onto his seat against Democratic challenger and former astronaut Jose Hernandez. In that contest, American Action Network has spent more than either of the party committees — more than $2.5 million.