You've heard about them in the news, watched their slick ads flash across the TV, maybe even given them some money. Each election season, a raft of outside groups crops up, bankrolling political ads across the country. But this year, the rules have changed—as has the amount of money pouring into independent expenditure campaigns, which is unprecedented. Thanks to Citizens United and other court rulings, we don't know who's funding many of these increasingly powerful players—groups like the Alliance for America's Future, Americans for Job Security, the American Future Fund, and Crossroads GPS—and in turn shaping the results of elections from Maine to California.
So we set out to track down some of these shadowy organizations and try to get some answers. Here are the three organizations we visited, as well as details on their leadership and their total spending in this election (via the Center for Responsive Politics):
60-Plus Association: Often billed as the conservative alternative to the AARP, this group has so far spent $6.4 million on the 2010 midterms. The group's chairman is James L. Martin, a former chief of staff to the late Rep. Edward Gurney (R-Fla.) and an organizer behind the National Conservative Political Action Committee, among other conservative organizations. 60-Plus has funded ads opposing more than 40 Democrats in Congress, including Reps. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), Paul Kanjorski (D-Pa.), and Nick Rahall (D-W.V.).
Americans for Job Security: Headed by Stephen DeMaura, a former executive director of the New Hampshire GOP, AJS stirred up plenty of controversy with a vicious attack on Arkansas Lt. Governor Bill Halter, Sen. Blanche Lincoln's opponent in the state's Democratic Senate primary. The ad accused Halter, a former tech executive, of shipping American jobs to India, and even featured an Indian actor "thanking" Halter for his supposed outsourcing. All told, AJS has spent $8 million attacking Democrats including Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) and Rep. Heath Shuler (D-N.C.) in the midterms.
Alliance for America's Future: GOP consultant Barry Bennett runs AAF, whose leadership includes Dick Cheney's daughter, Mary. So far the organization has spent $632,541 target Democrats. including Rep. Tim Bishop (D-N.Y.).
Here's what happened when we paid these groups a visit.
A version of this story appears in the January/February 2011 issue of Mother Jones.