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A Ground's Eye View of How Millions of Shady Corporate Political Dollars Are Hijacking This Election

'It’s pretty clear that corporations now have the ability to spend unlimited amounts of money to take on people like my boss.'
 
 
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What does a torrent of cash from anonymous corporate donors look like on the ground, in the heat of a Congressional race?

Rep. Bruce Braley is one of dozens of Democrats who’s discovering the answer to that question this fall. Braley has represented Iowa’s 1st -- a Democratic leaning district that encompasses Davenport -- the largest of the Quad Cities -- and college towns like Dubuque and Cedar Falls, since 2007. He took 64 percent of the vote in 2008.

Facing challenger Ben Lange, one of the Republican National Campaign Committee’s “Young Guns” and an up-and-coming conservative, Braley has a tougher fight this cycle. He’s holding a lead -- forecaster Nate Silver gives him more than a 90 percent chance of keeping his seat -- but his opponent has made the race closer than it might have been with the help of a bundle of campaign cash from a shady corporate front group called the American Future Fund (AFF).

The New York Times estimated that AFF has spent at least $574,000 on ads attacking the Democrat this cycle, but Braley communications director Caitlin Legacki told AlterNet the figure was closer to $1.8 million, including spending that isn’t strictly counted as “electioneering.” Lange’s also enjoyed another quarter-million worth of attack ads from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

In the wake of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, neither group is required to disclose its donors.

The American Future Fund was founded by Nick Ryan, a GOP lobbyist who served as the campaign manager for Jim Nussle’s 2006 Iowa gubernatorial run. It was started in 2007 with seed money put up by Bruce Rastetter, an ethanol company exec and reliable conservative donor, according to the New York Times .

The Des Moines Register reported that AFF has spent $8.9 million so far this cycle on behalf of conservative candidates. Despite the big money, the Register reported, “If you try to visit the ‘office’ of the Iowa-based advocacy organization that is shaking up political fundraising nationwide, you will find yourself standing in front of a mailbox at a private shipping service store on the south side of Des Moines.”

According to a complaint filed by Public Citizen and several other watchdog groups, AFF “is registered as a 501(c)(4) organization, which under IRS tax code cannot have a primary purpose of influencing elections.” The complaint alleges that the shadowy lobby “appears to be violating campaign finance law,” and called on the Federal Elections Commission to investigate its activities.

The Register noted that the anonymous nature of AFF’s donors has “raised controversy about who's seeking to influence the political process.” But it’s clear that the group is pulling in campaign dollars from corporate interest groups. AFF founder Nick Ryan boasted to the Register that in this cycle, the "corporate floodgates are opened."

“It’s pretty clear that corporations now have the ability to spend unlimited amounts of money to take on people like my boss,” said Caitlin Legacki. “This is a clear situation in which that’s happening.”

According to the Iowa Independent, the group’s leaders include “two media consultants who played key roles in the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth ads in 2004 and the Willie Horton ad in 1988, both of which helped defeat Democratic presidential candidates.”

Those campaigns have become classics of sleazy politics. Unsurprisingly, AFF’s ads have been especially nasty. According to the New York Times :

One that is particularly pernicious shows images of the ruined World Trade Center and then intones, “Incredibly, Bruce Braley supports building a mosque at ground zero.” Actually, Mr. Braley has never said that, stating only that the matter should be left to New Yorkers.