In the next month or so, the American Action Network, a self-styled "action tank," plans to launch a pricey political blitz with television and other ads in several states to boost the fortunes of Republican members who support center-right principles and are facing tough races this fall.
Former Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., the chief executive officer of the fledgling network, says that his group hopes to be active in eight to 10 Senate races and about 25 House contests this year. Coleman also stresses that the American Action Network -- which sources say is trying to raise more than $25 million to fund its ads -- plans to take advantage of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the recent Supreme Court ruling that allows corporations to spend unlimited amounts on direct advocacy for candidates.
"We'll use the tools available to us in the post-Citizens United [world]," he told National Journal.
The network is only one of a dozen or so groups on the right and the left that are engaged in multimillion-dollar fundraising drives this campaign season with an eye to helping dozens of senators and House members who are in highly competitive contests. On the GOP side, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the newly created American Crossroads, a "527" that launched recently with the help of GOP uber-consultants Karl Rove and Ed Gillespie, have indicated that they're trying to rope in at least $50 million each for their political ads and get-out-the-vote efforts in 2010.
On the Democratic side, the labor movement and other party allies are moving fast to mount equally ambitious political efforts to defend some endangered Democrats and win new seats. Gerald McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, says he expects his union and the larger AFL-CIO to which it belongs to spend close to $100 million on their political campaigns. Working America, a component of the AFL-CIO that focuses on turning out nonunion voters, is likely to spend another $25 million, he adds.
Although some unions have been notably lukewarm about the performance of the Obama administration and the Democratic-controlled Congress, McEntee says that his federation plans to be heavily involved in 18 Senate races and about 65 House contests this year. "We think [President] Obama's done a good job," he said, stressing the union's satisfaction with the passage of the health care plan. "We're satisfied for the moment, and we want to keep on driving." To maintain that momentum, McEntee stresses that AFSCME will also capitalize on the Citizens United ruling. "You bet we're going to do express advocacy."
The looming battle between groups on the right and the left will only intensify, given the high number of competitive Senate and House races this year. About 60 House races are in play, and perhaps a dozen Senate seats are up for grabs.
Both GOP and Democratic allies are engaged in a frenetic money chase to fund their ad drives this year, and in some cases, they are pitching to the same donors. On March 7, in New York City, for instance, Gillespie and Coleman jointly addressed groups of well-heeled contributors about their separate enterprises. "We're going to the same donors and knocking on the same doors," Coleman says.
If the groups meet their fundraising goals, liberal Democratic allies and their GOP counterparts could wind up spending between $100 million and $200 million each on the campaigns this year.
On the Republican side, the two biggest players appear to be American Crossroads and the chamber. American Crossroads has secured financial pledges for about $30 million, including a sizable promise from Dallas billionaire Harold Simmons, say sources familiar with the 527. Both Gillespie, the former Republican National Committee chairman, and Rove, the longtime political guru to former President George W. Bush, are outside advisers to the group and have been working to get it off the ground. They have been making joint trips, including one to Texas recently, to seek money from key GOP financial angels nationwide.
The 527 is led on a day-to-day basis by J. Steven Law, who stepped down this month as general counsel at the chamber to become president of the organization. The group boasts a few prominent directors, including Mike Duncan, a former RNC chairman, and it opened offices this week at 1401 New York Ave. NW., adjacent to Coleman's American Action Network.
Law, a former chief of staff to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., says that although the Citizens United decision provides a "lot more freedom" to run direct ads than before, whether his group will take advantage of the ruling "hasn't been decided yet." Law expects a number of organizations to "straddle the middle ground" between relying on issue-advocacy ads and pushing viewers to vote for or against a specific candidate.
American Crossroads is expecting to play in eight to 10 Senate races and one to two dozen House races, Law says.
U.S. chamber officials hope to raise and spend $50 million this year on campaign activities. "The political program will far outpace the $36 million we spent in 2008," says Bill Miller, the group's political director. In that earlier campaign, the chamber concentrated on Senate races, but this year the efforts will be "far more balanced," Miller explains. "We'll be focused on states where there are not only important Senate races but also complementary House races."
As examples, Miller cites New Hampshire, Ohio, and Pennsylvania; the three have about 13 House races that he calls competitive, plus key Senate contests.
Although the chamber bills itself as nonpartisan, historically it has backed mostly GOP candidates. Miller says that the organization's mission is to support pro-business candidates. He downplays the impact of the Citizens United ruling on the chamber: "Our interest has been, and continues to be, to run a voter-education program that focuses on issues" using ads and other tools.
Several unions and Democratic-leaning 527s have geared up fast to launch equally expensive campaigns on behalf of Democratic candidates this year. This week, the AFL-CIO was slated to host meetings in Washington to map out political plans for 2010 and the "possible need to raise more funds," McEntee says. AFSCME doesn't sound intimidated by the flurry of GOP activity. In the battle of voter turnout, the unions have a big advantage with "boots on the ground," he says. The GOP-leaning groups "can't compete with us in this area. I don't think Karl Rove will be knocking on doors."
Similarly, the Service Employees International Union is planning big political blitzes. Jon Youngdahl, the union's political director, says that the SEIU will focus on about 40 House races, of which 15 will be "high-priority ones with TV ads." In the Senate, Youngdahl expects the union to put its resources into about 10 contests, including races in Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, and Nevada. Overall, the SEIU's political budget this year is $40 million. That money is raised as hard dollars -- as in the past -- and permits the union to do express advocacy, he adds.
Greg Speed, the executive director of America Votes, a coalition of 40 national organizations that includes the AFL-CIO and the SEIU, says he expects the outfit to spend $11.5 million to "mobilize the progressive base" -- about the same amount as it did in 2008. The group will be active in 10 key states where high-stakes Senate and House battles are under way, including Colorado, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Nevada.
Patriot Majority, a 527 that was formed in the previous election cycle and spent $14 million on 22 issue-ad campaigns to help embattled Democratic members in New Mexico, Ohio, and elsewhere, plans to mount ad and get-out-the-vote blitzes in 2010 through a new PAC it set up last year. The Patriot Majority PAC will run campaigns against approximately a dozen "tea party" candidates "who have extreme ideas and who have been negatively affecting the political process," says Craig Varoga, the group's president. He adds that the PAC was set up "so we can do express advocacy," stressing that it can legally accept unlimited contributions from individuals to fund its operations. Between the PAC and the 527, Varoga predicts that his group will end up spending $10 million to $15 million on this year's elections.
This article appears in the April 17, 2010, edition of National Journal.