The paper that is home to a weekly column by Karl Rove got first dibs Tuesday on the announcement of how much the Rove-affiliated political advocacy groups, American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS, hope to raise for and spend on election 2012. Reported the Wall Street Journal:

Two conservative groups founded last year with the help of Republicans Karl Rove and Ed Gillespie have set a goal of raising $120 million in the effort to defeat President Barack Obama, win a GOP majority in the Senate and protect the party’s grip on the House in the 2012 election.

(Not to be outdone by the billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch who, “sources” told Politico in February, “plan to contribute and steer a total of $88 million to conservative causes during the 2012 election cycle.”)

In Tuesday’s announcement, the LA Times saw “another sign that the 2012 money chase had begun,” while the Journal regarded it, along with similar fundraising efforts by left-leaning advocacy groups, as part of an “arms race [that] could result in a record level of spending on the 2012 campaign.” The Crossroads groups’ fundraising target “suggests,” in the Washington Post’s telling, that American Crossroads (a super PAC, which can collect unlimited donations but must disclose donors) and Crossroads GPS (a 501(c)(4) which can collect unlimited anonymous donations) “are likely to assume a leading role among Republican interest groups over the next 20 months.” A Crossroads spokesman got his sales pitch in, telling the Post that

American Crossroads spent just 2 percent of its budget on fundraising costs and 2 percent on administrative costs, numbers that are “considerably lower than similar organizations on the left or right.”

The two groups certainly played a “leading role” during the 2010 election, having “raised more than $71 million in their first year,” per the Post, and “outspending all other outside advocacy groups in the 2010 elections, Federal Election Commission records show.” And yet the Journal reports that the Crossroads groups, having raised $71 million, were the “the second-largest source of campaign spending other than candidates and political parties,” while the “largest [outside spender] was the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which spent more than $90 million during the 2009-10 campaign.”

What gives? Back in October, too, you may recall, the Journal named AFSCME election 2010’s biggest outside spender on the same day the New York Times handed that distinction to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. (The Times explained the difference days later in a blog post. Here’s an explanation from the Sunlight Foundation, which funds some of CJR’s reporting on transparency). In a nutshell, the Journal got its numbers (in October and again this week) from the organization itself, and so the “more than $90 million” is what AFSCME said it spent, in total, on the 2010 election (local, state and federal races, advertising, phone banking, etc.). The Post’s numbers are, as indicated in the piece, what AFSCME reported spending to the Federal Election Commission (which is a tally of specific types, but not all types, of spending). Both papers owed readers a fuller explanation of what the numbers they cite are actually counting, over what time period, and who’s done the counting.

Given the uncertainty around identifying which outside group has spent how much (let alone, from where the money came), what does any such group have to lose by issuing a press release declaring, We’re going to spend X amount this election! It’ll generate some headlines, maybe inspire a new donor or two. And it’s not like anyone can hold them to it, really.

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.