For three weeks in May, Republican super-PACs took turns attacking Democratic senator Claire McCaskill in TV ads. Republicans hadn’t held their primary—it’s not until August 7—but McCaskill wound up trailing all three of the GOP candidates in polls. Now McCaskill, unnerved, is struggling to recover.
That’s what super-PACs can do. When they emerged in 2010 and worked in tandem, they were a critical force in the Republican landslide in the congressional elections. This year they’re playing an even bigger role. The size and reach of their efforts dwarf what they did two years ago.
American Crossroads (AC), the leading super-PAC founded by GOP strategists Karl Rove and Ed Gillespie, has already come to the aid of Mitt Romney, at least tangentially. It has spent $24.6 million on “presidential-level advocacy” since Romney locked up the nomination in April. “Most of the ads have been designed to frame the tax, debt, and health care issues . . . with the goal of shifting the policy and legislative conversation two clicks to the right,” says AC’s Jonathan Collegio.
Romney didn’t need much help. His own super-PAC, Restore Our Future, promoted him lavishly in the primaries and is likely to raise $50 million to $100 million for the general election. Meanwhile, fundraising by the Romney campaign itself has surged.
What makes the super-PACs so important are three factors. The first is their extraordinary success in fundraising, especially from big-dollar donors opposed to President Obama. Whether they’ll raise and spend $1 billion in 2012, as Politico says, is uncertain. But they’ll come close. Democratic super-PACs are far behind, embarrassingly so.
The second factor is the division of labor that’s the trademark of the GOP super-PACs. The Congressional Leadership Fund, part of an outfit known as the American Action Network (AAN), focuses on House races, as does the Young Guns Network. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce concentrates mostly on Senate contests. AC, while involved in some congressional races, is mainly zeroed in on the presidential battle.
Avoiding duplication of effort is a key element of the working agreement among the groups, who keep in constant contact. In Missouri, their ads ran in consecutive weeks, with no overlap.
Third, the super-PACs are run by some of the GOP’s top political strategists: Rove and Steve Law at AC, Brian Walsh at the AAN, Scott Reed at the Chamber. Gillespie had to leave AC when he joined the Romney campaign. Super-PACs are legally barred from coordinating their activities with individual candidates or the Republican House and Senate campaign committees and the Republican National Committee.
There’s been fear in GOP circles that the independent political groups would gobble up funds that otherwise would go to the party committees. This doesn’t appear to be happening. The National Republican Congressional Committee’s fundraising, for example, is the best since 2005, before the super-PACs were launched.
Besides, outside groups can take on political tasks the official campaign outfits are unable to afford. In the past, candidates in “orphan” states—where the Republican party is weak and which the presidential candidate is writing off—had to fend largely for themselves. But not in 2012.
The AAN plans to boost Republican House candidates in roughly 40 orphan races, as many as 25 of them in California, Illinois, and New York, all Democratic strongholds. A number of them are freshmen elected in the 2010 GOP wave, with some facing the added burden of running for reelection in a district altered by reapportionment.
“You have a unique set of circumstances,” Walsh says, that triggered “a bright flashing light.” The AAN is committed to preserving the Republican majority in the House—with John Boehner as speaker—and the orphan seats represent a “potential risk.” Yet there’s also “a great opportunity” to capture orphan Democratic seats in states—Utah and Georgia, for instance—which President Obama is unlikely to contest, Walsh says.
The possibility of losing the House seems to be remote. David Wasserman of the Cook Political Report, the premier analyst of House races, forecasts gains in November of “between two seats for Republicans and eight for Democrats.” The likelihood of a GOP gain, he believes, “is currently greater than the possibility Democrats will retake the majority.”
As for the Senate, there’s a consensus among the super-PACs. Republicans need to net four seats to take control, three if Romney wins and the vice president is a Republican. An emphasis on winning the Senate (and holding the House) is “the insurance policy” for the business community and others should Obama gain a second term, Reed says.
Maine, where Olympia Snowe is retiring, is considered a long shot, but Republicans haven’t given up. Five seats are viewed as first tier, four held by Democrats (Montana, North Dakota, Nebraska, Missouri), one by a Republican (Nevada). These will attract the most super-PAC attention—and money. The status of Massachusetts, where Republican Scott Brown is seeking a full six-year term, is unclear, but holding his seat is crucial to GOP hopes of a Senate majority.
The second-tier seats are held by Democrats (four of whom are retiring): Virginia, Ohio, Wisconsin, Florida, New Mexico, Hawaii. Romney is seen as the crucial factor: As he goes in these states, so go the Republican Senate candidates.
The warchests of the super-PACs represent a change in the financial well-being of the parties. In 2008, Obama and Democrats heavily outspent Republicans. This year, independent Republican groups may double the spending of their Democratic counterparts, and Romney may roughly match Obama in fundraising.
Given their advantage, Republicans have the luxury of experimenting. In a House district in New York, they bought a campaign popup on YouTube, expecting about 2 percent of viewers would click to watch their ad. As it turned out, 15 percent did.
Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.