Back last spring, when I was reporting a piece about the hedge fund industry’s shift of its support away from Barack Obama and toward the Republicans, I had an interesting exchange with a former Democratic fundraiser about American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS, the organization co-founded by Karl Rove. As I reported at the time:

…that people [the former fundraiser] used to raise money from on Wall Street were reporting that Rove’s pitch to them for Crossroads contributions was specifically that, whether or not [Mitt] Romney could mount a serious challenge to Obama, Crossroads would be focusing on winning back the Senate for Republicans and holding the House, thereby guaranteeing that legislation these funders feared from a second-term Obama—say, the closing of the carried-interest loophole benefiting private equity and hedge fund partners—would never make it into law. “Rove is telling these donors, ‘I’m going to crack the Senate for Republicans,’” said the former fundraiser. “These donors are worried about their taxes going up and that’s why he can go and pitch them. He’s focused on the Senate. It’s ‘If Obama’s going to punch at the rich guys, well, we’re going to stop [him] from passing carried interest.’”

I hadn’t thought about that for a while, because we kept hearing about all the massive investments that Crossroads and other conservative outside groups were making over the summer on Romney’s behalf, for ads attacking Obama over, among other things, his “you didn’t build that” comment. But I got thinking about it again this week when I saw the latest tally of spending by all GOP-favoring outside groups on ads backing Romney:

$10,839,000


06/19-06/25

$8,835,000


06/26-07/02

$3,058,000


07/03-07/09

$8,839,000


07/10-07/16

$9,748,000


07/17-07/23

$10,891,000


07/24-07/30

$12,601,000


07/31-08/06

$8,229,000


08/07-08/13

$17,787,000


08/14-08/20

$26,124,000


08/21-08/27

$3,544,000


08/28-09/03

$11,017,000


09/04-09/10

$6,676,000


09/11-09/17

$9,832,000


09/18-09/24

What jumps out at you here is that what is not there: a major ramping up in spending as the race heads into its home stretch, the stretch we were told was when the Republican financial advantage was really going to become clear. Now, one could argue that the outside groups are not ramping up that much because they actually don’t need to – that they had to spend a lot during the summer when Romney’s campaign was running low on its primary-season account, whereas now that the campaign is allowed to tap into its general election funds, it’s not nearly as in need of outside help as before. Except that, as several papers have reported this week, the campaign’s general election fund is not nearly as flush as some assumed it would be, because a lot of the money being raked in by the campaign was actually of the sort that goes to the party committees, which the campaign doesn’t have direct control over. (This is why small-dollar fundraising of the sort Obama is better at is more valuable for a campaign, dollar for dollar than the $50,000 checks candidates pull in from wealthy donors at the joint campaign-party fundraising events.) Given that, you’d expect the outside groups to be plowing money toward Romney now.

Instead, what we are hearing about are big ad buys being made down-ticket, in places like Indiana, where Crossroads just bought more than $500,00 in ad time on behalf of Richard Mourdock, the Tea Party-backed usurper of Richard Lugar, who is now facing a tough race against Rep. Joe Donnelly for a seat that Republicans assumed was safe. Now, in some states it will be hard to discern a major upsurge in outside spending on Senate races because the outside groups have been shoveling in so much for months – as in Ohio, Montana and Virginia. (Missouri was a major target before Todd Akin started musing aloud about legitimate rape.) More noticeable will be if Crossroads et al start going in big on House races – which seems all the more likely now that some prognosticators are talking more openly about the chances for a Democratic takeover of the people’s chamber.

No matter what, Mitt Romney’s going to have more than enough dough to be competitive on the air—heck, Chicago Cubs owner Joe Ricketts just announced a $10 million SuperPAC buy that he’s doing on Romney’s behalf, all on his lonesome. But if there is a gradual shift away from Romney by the other outside groups, it’s quite a commentary on the state of the race, and suggests that—shocker—Karl Rove may not be telling his Wall Street Journal readers the unvarnished truth when he assures week after week that all is hunky dory for Mitt. The money men may be looking at the race and thinking that the man to go with now is not the money man, but others down-ballot who will be in a position to, well, protect the money.

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