WASHINGTON — U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson is facing a growing threat in his re-election campaign — and it's not necessarily Republican rival U.S. Rep. Connie Mack.
It's the super PAC.
American Crossroads, a political action committee overseen by conservative strategist Karl Rove, said Wednesday it has reserved $6.2 million in air time this fall to link Nelson to President Barack Obama's agenda.
Nelson "has a long record that makes him vulnerable," said Crossroads spokesman Nate Hodson.
That follows a $1 million injection into a new super PAC supporting Mack. The money to Freedom PAC came from casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson, who has already donated millions to super PACs supporting Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney.
And in Tampa this week, anti-Nelson TV ads began running from another newly formed group, American Commitment, a tax exempt advocacy group that is like a super PAC but does not have to disclose its donors.
The ad attacks Nelson for supporting the health care law and is steeped with distortions but underscores how outside groups have dramatically changed the way campaigns are waged. Republicans already control the House — thanks in part to a massive advantage in outside spending in 2010 — and need to win four net seats to take the Senate. Other Democrats are considered more vulnerable than Nelson, but the Republicans are spreading their odds.
Nelson added $1.8 million to his campaign coffers in the quarter that ended June 30 and now has nearly $11 million cash on hand, a formidable amount and far more than Mack, whom some Republicans worry is not strong enough to defeat the two-term Nelson.
Mack's campaign is way behind. It reported Wednesday raising about $839,000 for the quarter and has $1.3 million cash on hand. But the third-party money levels the advantage and ensures Nelson will be pummelled with ads leading up to the Nov. 6 election. Polling already suggests he's been hurt.
Other groups, including Americans for Prosperity, 60 Plus Association and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have already financed ads against Nelson. The ads mostly focus on Nelson's support of Obama's major policies, including the stimulus and health care.
All told, more than $14 million has been spent or reserved in air time, including the new American Crossroads $6.2 million, according to media tracking figures confirmed by Nelson's campaign.
Crossroads has emerged as one of the most aggressive super PACs to proliferate after a 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision ended restrictions on corporate and union spending in elections.
Along with a sister group Crossroads GPS, which is organized as an educational group under section 501(c)(4) of the tax code and is not required to disclose donors, Crossroads plans to spend $300 million on elections this year.
On top of the money against Nelson, the groups are on track to spend more than $24 million in Florida to oppose Obama or his policies. To put it in perspective, that's more than the $20 million Charlie Crist raised for his 2006 gubernatorial election.
Money has come from corporate interests and wealthy donors such as David and Charles Koch, billionaire industrialists who fund Americans for Prosperity. An AFP ad against Nelson in June cast him as a big spending liberal with failed results.
Adelson, the casino magnate, is another major donor to super PACs and almost single handily kept Gingrich competitive in the Republican presidential primaries, leveling some of the hardest-hitting attacks on Romney's business record.
Adelson, who is now donating in support of Romney, was seen meeting in New York in June with one of Mack's top advisers, Arthur Finkelstein, about plans to fund committees to win control of the Senate, according to a report in POLITICO. Coordination between super PACs and candidates is illegal and Mack's team has denied any connection.
Freedom PAC also pulled in $50,000 from The Villages, the large retirement community in Central Florida owned by conservative Gary Morse. If Morse had given directly to Mack, he would be limited to $2,500 each for the primary and general election.
Democrats and Obama have decried the rise of super PACs and "social welfare" groups such as Crossroads GPS, but have formed their own in an attempt to stay afloat. Priorities USA Action, started by a former Obama aide, on Wednesday launched a new Spanish-language ad in Florida that criticizes Romney.
Still, Democratic groups have not raised nearly much as conservative-aligned ones.
"Connie Mack IV is a seriously flawed candidate," said Nelson's deputy campaign manager, Marley Wilkes. "But Bill Nelson isn't being challenged by Connie Mack IV. He's under attack by a handful of billionaires operating in secret. And they don't care about Florida. For them, it's all about protecting their own self-interest in Washington."
Nelson declined to be interviewed but has responded similarly with fundraising appeals, bemoaning "shadowy right-wing front groups" of funneling corporate money into political races.
"We can stop them from buying this election — but I need your help to do it," Nelson wrote in a recent email.
Hodson, the Crossroads spokesman, said Nelson's record speaks for itself.
"All Crossroads (or other outside groups for that matter) can do is make the case to Floridians that Bill Nelson's record is out-of-touch with his constituents," he said. "What we cannot do is make up the votes Nelson took, which are far to the left of the state he represents. Bill Nelson is vulnerable because of his out-of-touch voting record in Washington."
The onslaught appears to be taking a toll. A Rasmussen poll released Wednesday had Mack leading Nelson by 9 percentage points. In an April, Rasmussen poll, Nelson held an 11-point lead.
"The only poll that counts is on Election Day," replied Wilkes.
Alex Leary can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @learyreports.