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Money no longer talks

In 1962, Jesse Unruh famously laid out a basic law of campaigns and elections: “Money is the mother’s milk of politics.” But in this most ideological of years, Big Daddy Unruh’s axiom may finally have lost some of its accuracy.

In Pennsylvania, Sen. Arlen Specter had spent more than $6.5 million by March 31, yet his Democratic primary opponent, Rep. Joe Sestak — who had spent only $1.1 million — was hanging tough in polls. Last week, Sestak began airing an ad showing Specter being praised by President George W. Bush, which apparently was all he needed to flip the poll numbers. Sestak now has a growing lead going into next week’s election.

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In Arkansas, Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D) had spent nearly $6 million by April 28, compared to $2.1 million by primary challenger Lt. Gov. Bill Halter. Despite the 3-to-1 spending disparity, Lincoln’s early dominant lead has disappeared, and now is well under the 50 percent mark necessary to avoid a runoff election after next week’s primary. Despite millions of dollars spent on negative ads by the campaigns and outside groups, neither Lincoln’s nor Halter’s favorability numbers have moved much in the last six weeks of the campaign. Voters appear to be shrugging those attacks off and making up their minds based on other factors — one of which is likely an anti-incumbency, anti-D.C. sentiment.

In California, Republican Meg Whitman has dumped $59 million (and counting) into her primary campaign, yet has been unable to close the deal against her primary tormentor, California insurance commissioner Steve Poizner. In fact, polls show her once-commanding lead whittled away and a competitive primary shaping up — despite Whitman’s outspending Poizner 3-to-1.

In Florida, presumptive Republican Senate nominee Marco Rubio’s early fundraising woes had no impact on winning his primary without a single vote being cast. In fact, Gov. Charlie Crist’s commanding primary lead in 2009 was transformed into a commanding deficit by March 2010 — before Rubio had run a single television ad.

In Utah, 17-year Senate veteran Bob Bennett, with $4 million raised, couldn’t make it out of his state party’s nominating convention. Conservative activists, angry Bennett once co-sponsored a (very Republican) bill with a Democrat, booted him from the ballot for two no-names, neither of whom had raised more than $400,000. The reliably conservative incumbent is now relegated to mulling a write-in campaign in the general election.

In Indiana, establishment Republicans lucked out — not because of a lack of anti-establishment, anti-incumbent fervor, but because they had enough opponents to split the teabagger vote. Lobbyist Dan Coats won his party’s nomination for Senate with a tepid 39 percent. John Hostettler, representing his party’s Ron Paul wing, got 23 percent of the vote, despite spending only $42,000 as of April 14, compared to Coats’ $154,000. In House primaries, Rep. Mark Souder survived with 48 percent, Rep. Dan Burton might’ve broken some record for incumbents by winning his primary with less than 30 percent of the vote, and in IN-08, establishment pick Larry Bucshon barely survived teabagger Kristi Risk, winning the nomination 33-29. Bucshon spent about $150,000. Risk spent less than $30,000.

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The proliferation of online communities certainly appears to be leveling the playing field at the primary level, allowing candidates in better sync with their party’s base to compete against better-known, better-funded, establishment-backed candidates. In such an environment, television becomes less important, while online outreach and field work pick up the slack. Traditional campaign consultants may not like it, but primary success increasingly hinges on building movements, rather than spending millions on sleazy negative television ads.

Moulitsas is founder and publisher of Daily Kos (dailykos.com)