A new and powerful "super-PAC" tied to Republican strategist Karl Rove, fueled by out-of-state corporations and billionaires, is swooping into Florida to put its money behind front-runner Marco Rubio in the U.S. Senate race.
American Crossroads spent nearly $250,000 so far on pro-Rubio mailings aimed at absentee voters, according to a report filed Tuesday with the Federal Elections Commission. The group can shell out unlimited money on Rubio's behalf, thanks to a Supreme Court ruling earlier this year that allows corporations and wealthy individuals to funnel money directly to campaigns.
"This group is really at the forefront of this new phenomenon of super PACs," said Dave Levinthal, a spokesman for the Washington-based Center for Responsive Politics, a campaign watchdog group. "We've been saying that the Supreme Court decision would open up a brand-new avenue of money and influence, and we're seeing that very much come true."
American Crossroads is among a number of outside, special interest groups influencing the race for Florida's coveted open Senate seat and helping Rubio erode the fundraising edge held by Gov. Charlie Crist.
As of early August, the Republican-turned-independent governor had $8 million, compared to Rubio with about $4.5 million and Democrat Kendrick Meek with about $2.6 million.
American Crossroads raised more than $9.3 million between January and August, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Two of its largest donations came from the oil and gas industry. Rubio is the only candidate in the Senate race who favors expanding offshore oil drilling. Crist was once open to more oil exploration, but changed his position after the BP oil spill.
Another recent donation to American Crossroads came from Daniels Manufacturing Corp., an aircraft and aerospace company based in Orlando that has received millions of dollars in federal contracts.
"I like his politics," president George Daniels said of Rubio. "He's pro-defense, pro-lower taxes and has been that way for a long time, as opposed to the flip-flopping governor."
American Crossroads has spent millions of dollars attacking Democratic candidates. The source of some of its money is a secret because it is affiliated with a nonprofit arm, Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies, that is not required to disclose donors to the IRS.
"The Washington special interests know about Marco Rubio's hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer-funded giveaways here in Florida, and are hoping there's more money where that came from should he win," said Crist spokesman Danny Kanner.
A spokesman for American Crossroads said the group is prepared to spend more money in Florida if Rubio's lead slips.
A CNN-Time-Opinion Research poll released Wednesday found Rubio with 42 percent of the vote, Crist with 31 percent and Meek with 23 percent.
The pro-Rubio mailing features pictures of the Democratic establishment in Washington and assails them for running up the federal deficit. "Marco Rubio will get our economy moving forward again and rein in out-of-control spending in Washington, D.C.," it says.
Miami Herald staff writer Lesley Clark contributed to this report.