WASHINGTON — With ballots already sitting on kitchen counters and control of the U.S. Senate up for grabs, a torrent of campaign cash continues to surge into the race between Patty Murray and Dino Rossi as independent groups spent almost $4.5 million in three days this week.
More than $11.4 million in independent expenditures in the race have so far been reported, according to the Sunlight Foundation, a non-partisan, non-profit watchdog group that tracks such spending using Federal Election Commission filings.
Nearly two-thirds of the money spent on negative advertising has been spent bashing Murray, the Democratic incumbent seeking a fourth term against Republican challenger Rossi.
"With Rossi down in every independent poll, they need to come on strong," said Matt Barreto, an associate professor of political science at the University of Washington.
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Both parties are investing heavily in the race. The National Republican Senatorial Committee has spent more than $1 million so far, this week running ads against Murray, while the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has spent more than $910,000 opposing Rossi.
Republicans believe a Rossi victory might hand them control of the Senate. Democrats hope to build a Western firewall to thwart a Republican takeover and have made the Senate races in Washington state, California and Nevada a top priority. President Barack Obama is visiting all three states on his current campaign swing.
"Republicans are not willing to give up on taking the Senate," Barreto said. "They are putting all their chips in here. Why not? If they don't spend it, it is wasted."
But the parties aren't the only ones spending heavily in Washington state.
Two groups associated with Republican operative Karl Rove, Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies (GPS) and American Crossroads, have pumped nearly $1.5 million into the Senate race so far this week, boosting Rossi's campaign. Coupled with earlier spending, the groups associated with President George W. Bush's former political adviser have spent a total of roughly $2.5 million.
On the Democratic side, Commonsense 10, a liberal advocacy group, has spent $331,000 this week hitting Rossi with television ads.
Other Republican-leaning groups that have spent money this week include Focus on the Family, $34,000, and Rightchange.Com Inc., $29,000. The League of Conservation Voters has spent almost $15,000 supporting Murray.
In a decision earlier this year, the Supreme Court cleared the way for the almost unlimited and anonymous spending that has marked campaigns across the nation.
Critics of the decision said it opened the door to a "Wild West" atmosphere in which almost anything goes.
The result of all this money has been nearly non-stop television and radio advertising in Washington state.
With people already mailing in their ballots in Washington, Barreto said, campaigns can't wait for the last weekend to release an advertising blitz.
"Every day is election day," he said. "They need to be on the air every day. They have to have a high level of exposure."
Campaign advertising has traditionally been centered around the evening network news because people most likely to vote are watching. But Barreto said the advertising has already "oozed" into prime time and onto the cable channels.
Despite worries among some political consultants that people are so bombarded by the advertising that they are tuning them out, Barreto said they're listening.
"People always say they are tired of ads," he said. "But research shows they are effective whether negative or positive."