The names of those involved are quite familiar: Karl Rove, Ed Gillespie, Norm Coleman. But the tactics these conservative insiders are using are different. They are slowly trying to catch up to the left—by using its techniques as their own.
“As a candidate in ’08, I was stunned by the stuff that was being thrown at me,” former Minnesota senator Norm Coleman says of his electoral loss to Al Franken two-years-ago. “Trial lawyers, environmental groups, labor—they were all smacking me on the same stuff. But we didn’t do that on the right. We did this cycle.”
Coleman is quietly completing his first election cycle not running for political office or holding an elected office in over 15 years, but he’s maintained a very strong behind-the-scenes presence in Washington.
Through his groups American Action Network and its cousin American Action Forum, which he started in February and which total less than 10 staff members, Coleman has raised $30 million. With that money, he was able to be involved in 28 House races (supporting 18 winners) and five Senate contests (where they supported 3 winners), as well as run issue advocacy programs here in Washington.
“The nature of politics really, I think, is in a transformational stage with third parties,” Coleman says. “The ability of third party groups to be able to coordinate amongst themselves, to be supportive of both conservative principles and ultimately conservative candidates—I think it represents a profound shift.”
So what exactly did Coleman’s group do? “I’m not into advertising what we did other than we followed the law,” Coleman says, sounding mysteriously vague; “we focused our resources on advocacy where we could and on issues.”
How an independent group based in Washington, D.C. would get out the vote in a political race was explained to me by Jonathan Collegio, communications director for American Crossroads: “What an organization can do to get out the vote is: identify voters that are likely to vote, [and reach them with] absentee ballot notifications, early voting notifications, as well as get out the vote reminders, and phone calls in the weeks and days leading up to the election.”
American Crossroads, founded by former George W. Bush advisers Karl Rove and Ed Gillespie was perhaps the biggest outside player on behalf of Republican in November’s election. Combined with its cousin group Crossroads GPS, American Crossroads raised $71 million. These two groups have only been around since summer 2010.
One estimate is that there are 19 of these new groups. None are associated with any candidate or political party. They come, by and large, as a direct result of the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling, which ruled that the federal government cannot limit the amount of money given to third-party, independent political groups. But there are limits to these sorts of organizations.
“What an organization like ours has difficulty doing is organizing a large boots on the ground effort,” Collegio says, “simply because we don’t have the apparatus of the local party organization or the ability to coordinate with the candidates that we’re trying to elect.”
The kind of activities Coleman, Rove, and Gillespie have taken up since recently leaving government have been singled out by the White House—and the president himself—for scorn.
“They can buy millions of dollars worth of TV ads—and worst of all, they don’t even have to reveal who’s actually paying for the ads,” President Barack Obama complained in July. “These shadow groups are already forming and building war chests of tens of millions of dollars to influence the fall elections.”
Coleman, though, doesn’t see it that way. “I think it’s clear that one of the things that groups like ours and others accomplish is, we level the playing field,” Coleman says, citing the emergence of groups like the Center for American Progress on the left and the biggest group of all – the labor movement. “That’s really all we accomplish—level the playing field. Money in and of itself doesn’t always determine the results of an election. If you can stop your candidate from being buried . . . you stand a chance.”
Coleman insists that when you total up all spending, “The left still spent more money in the last election cycle, over all.” He is indeed correct.
The question some conservative critics have is whether these groups are doing the work of the Republican National Committee (RNC). It’s a fair question, since dissatisfaction with the RNC is widespread after it fell far into debt this past election cycle, and after two years of a chairman who’s received most of his notoriety from continuously inserting his foot into his own mouth.
Coleman rejects the notion that the RNC has been displaced, arguing that there’s enough money to go around. No donor, Coleman says, is “sacrificing the next family vacation or the next meal to participate” in funding these sorts of groups.
RNC spokesman Doug Heye seemed to second this idea by saying, “Keep in mind, one can give unlimited amounts to outside groups, while party committees can take a maximum of $30,400 per individual.”
“We were very enthusiastic about the efforts of the American Action Network and American Crossroads,” Heye sang in praise of these new independent groups. “They did tremendous work and put points on the board. In previous cycles, Republicans were at a disadvantage to Democrats precisely because they had outside groups like MoveOn and labor unions backing their cause. It was critical to have every resource possible pushing in the same direction.”
And it will be even more critical in the race to unseat Obama in 2012.