Outside groups raking in the cash

Political groups representing the left and the right have already spent an eye-popping $35 million to influence the outcome of the 2012 election, according to an investigation by The Hill.

Over the last several weeks, The Hill interviewed media advertising trackers and officials representing major outside groups and reviewed Federal Election Commission records. The analysis reviewed groups that are directly spending on elections and those seeking to influence the policy debates.

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Some of these large political entities by law do not have to regularly disclose spending because they couch their ads as policy rather than campaign messages. A few of the groups did not respond to requests for comment. Therefore, the $35 million figure represents the floor — millions more likely have been spent in political maneuvering.

“We’re seeing the outside groups dip their foot in the water,” said Ken Goldstein, of the nonpartisan Campaign Media Analysis Group. “We’re going to see those groups carrying a massive amount of the load of political advertising in 2012.”

The main drivers of the outside-group spending have been American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS, Republican-affiliated groups co-founded by Karl Rove. They have dropped an unprecedented $20 million attacking Democratic Senate candidates and President Obama. Liberal and conservative groups have combined to spend more than $10 million on Senate races alone.

Those that do not have to disclose their spending that participated in The Hill’s survey include the conservative Crossroads GPS ($20 million total with American Crossroads), American Action Network ($2.8 million total on advocacy and electioneering), Americans for Prosperity ($5 million on ads for federal issue advocacy) and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce (less than $1 million). On the Democratic side, Priorities USA has spent slightly less than $1 million, House Majority PAC is at $921,000 after spending some on House special elections, Patriot Majority PAC has doled out $400,000 and Americans United for Change has spent $350,000.

While major policy battles have garnered similar amounts in the past, this year represents a major shift because the Crossroads groups and others have zeroed in more on specific candidates in ads that ostensibly focused on policies.

Outside groups are able to raise unlimited sums of money because of recent Supreme Court decisions, including Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which blew a hole in campaign finance restrictions, but did not change the rules by which candidates and congressional campaign committees have to abide. 

Groups that are conducting some issue advocacy rather than direct electioneering, such as Crossroads GPS, Majority PAC and Americans for Prosperity, only have to report their spending on a semiannual basis in non-election years. Some of those groups refused to divulge their spending. 

The ramifications of the high-court ruling could limit candidates’ ability to control the narratives of their own races and risk letting the groups define them before they can define themselves. This is the first time since the Citizens United decision that the outside groups have had a full election cycle to raise and spend, and their early moves indicate a huge impact on this year’s campaign.

James Bopp, the conservative lawyer who led the charge on Citizens United, said the ruling and what’s left of campaign finance regulations have combined to leave the campaigns and committees in a bad spot.

“The parties are at a huge disadvantage because of contribution limits,” he said. “The practical effect is candidates are increasingly less able to get their message out, and that’s going to be particularly true in this election. I think super-PACs are going to increase [total election] spending by another 50 percent over last year.”

Spokesmen for both major parties pointed out that they do plenty besides advertising that the outside groups can’t do, including candidate recruitment and research, but don’t dispute that they might be outspent on television ads this year. 

“Unfortunately, the reality here is the parties and candidates have lost control of this stuff,” said former National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Davis (Va.). “Because of Citizens United and campaign finance, we’ve lost control. That’s just a fact.”

Liberal and conservative groups have combined to spend more than $1.5 million in Montana’s tightly contested Senate race between incumbent Jon Tester (D) and Rep. Denny Rehberg (R), a lot of money in a state where television ads are inexpensive. The candidates, meanwhile, haven’t spent a dime on ads.

Democratic and liberal entities, including environmental groups and unions, have shelled out at least $6 million, while conservative groups have combined to top $30 million. The parties themselves have not spent significant amounts of money on next year’s elections.

Liberal-leaning environmental groups have combined to spend at least $3 million so far this year on advertising, mostly against Republicans, while unions, which traditionally spend large sums on elections, largely focused on collective-bargaining battles in a handful of states and have yet to spend much on federal elections or policy battles.

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Those that declined to give their spending totals include the liberal group Majority PAC, the liberal environmental group Sierra Club and the conservative Club for Growth. The most recent data available for those groups are almost six months old.

Strategists on both sides predict this early spending will pale in comparison with what’s to come.

The Crossroads groups have said they will team up to spend more than $240 million on the 2012 elections, up from the $40 million they spent in 2010.

Democratic groups, including Priorities USA and Priorities USA Action, which are being run by former White House deputy press secretary Bill Burton, and the Majority PAC and House Majority PAC, are expected to be major players. But campaign strategists expect Republican entities to dominate the fundraising battleground. 

Burton predicts his group alone will raise $100 million for the race, although the group has reportedly been slow out of the gate. Unions will also spend heavily on the election, and the AFL-CIO has launched its own outside spending group, but the unions’ focus is more on get-out-the-vote operations than advertising.

“I think this spending foreshadows 2012. [Republicans] will win the air war,” said an official at one major union. “Everyone’s committed to deepening our advantage on the ground. We have neither the will nor the capacity to go dollar for dollar with Crossroads.”