The next stage in the super PAC evolution is ready to upend the 2014 midterm elections.
Small, state-based outside groups that are allowed to raise and spend unlimited amounts of money have proliferated in the early going of this year's races and are threatening to have a bigger impact than those based in Washington, such as the Karl Rove-founded American Crossroads.
These new groups are based in states where senators are battling for reelection, and dedicate themselves exclusively to that race. And just as happened when Crossroads and other nationally-focused groups burst onto the scene in 2010 and 2012, the newest iteration is forcing candidates, parties, and even the older outside groups to recalibrate how they conduct their campaigns, creating conflict in a survival-of-the-fittest world.
In Alaska, Democratic Sen. Mark Begich and both of his main Republican opponents have local super PAC support. So do Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Democratic adversary Alison Lundergan Grimes in Kentucky. Red-state Democratic Sens. Mary Landrieu, Mark Pryor, and Kay Hagan all have backing from recently incorporated groups.
By the fall, political operatives expect that candidate allies will try to establish such PACs in nearly every major Senate race. Strategists debate the strengths and weaknesses of these localized groups, but they could prove critically important to a plethora of key Senate matchups.
And behind the scenes, they'll add to the tensions flaring among an increasingly crowded field of third-party groups, all desperate to attract big donors.
"It's going to make it a lot more chaotic," said Mark Longabaugh, a Democratic strategist with experience running outside groups. "Just like everything that happens in politics, some of it could be good and some if it could be bad."
State-based super PACs aren't new. Longabaugh ran one last year aimed at helping then-candidate Tim Kaine win his race in Virginia (it ultimately raised only a few hundred thousand dollars). But more and more new groups are mimicking those early adopters.
Such an expansion is a natural development, Longabaugh and others say, in a campaign-finance world that both parties are still trying to understand.
In 2010 and 2012, in the wake of the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, party operatives focused on building organizations with national influence, like the all-purpose Crossroads. In 2012, Democrats formed groups dedicated to the Senate, House, and presidential campaigns — including a group to supply all three with research.
But there are signs that strategists are looking for the next evolution to happen more locally. Donations to the major establishment Republican super PACs are down significantly in 2013, with more ideological groups filling the vacuum. But that void is also being filled by groups affiliated with both parties that are laser-focused on a single opponent.
Part of the rationale for one new group, We Are Kentucky — a group backing Lundergan Grimes — is to guarantee donors' money is going where they intended.
McConnell is already the focus of the party's fundraising efforts — the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee emailed at least four fundraising appeals featuring McConnell in the last week of January alone. But donations to the DSCC won't necessarily go toward unseating the incumbent Republican.
"The bigger PACs do a great job," said a person involved with We Are Kentucky. "They're very important; they have a level of sophistication that's critical in races like Kentucky's. But there's a recognition that given the profile of the race, there will be a lot of money raised nationally using this race — 'Help beat McConnell.' But that money might not be spent here; it could be spent in Arkansas or Louisiana or North Carolina."
That can sometimes set ideologically aligned national and local groups against each other, competing for a limited pool of donor money. Tensions can flare. In West Virginia, The New York Times recently reported, several sources said Crossroads threatened to boycott the Senate race if locals started their own super PAC effort in support of Republican Rep. Shelley Moore Capito.
"You've already seen "... a lot of bumping and grinding over donors and whose institution is grabbing the money," Longabaugh said. "That's an inevitable part of the process."
Some operatives argue that splitting the cost of campaigning among smaller groups creates inefficiency by duplicating administrative and staff costs. Or, in some cases, the people running the group can take too much off the top for themselves. "The issue is that these groups generally don't have audits or cost-control measures that make them a good bang for buck for very large donors," said one Republican strategist.
The relationship between big and small super PACs isn't always contentious. Senate Majority PAC gave $170,000 to Put Alaska First, the local group backing Begich, in 2013. That works out to more than half of Put Alaska First's initial fundraising.
And national GOP operatives acknowledge that state-based PACs are better positioned to raise money locally. Groups with their eye on the national landscape might miss smaller donors who want to do more than to offer a maximum contribution to their preferred candidate's campaign. "These groups can serve the unique purpose of increasing local fundraising base by providing another way for maxed-out local donors to help their candidate of choice," the GOP strategist said.
Locally operated organizations can help insulate themselves from criticism that they're part of a D.C. establishment trying to bigfoot a rival — a charge that carries particular weight in Republican primaries.
"Sometimes guys from D.C. come and see things differently than we see," said Henry Barbour, who along with other Mississippi-based operatives has formed a super PAC to defend Sen. Thad Cochran against a primary challenger. "We all talk a little differently, sometimes think a little differently, so we thought it was important to do it that way."