Small Super PACs Playing Outsize Role in Senate Races

One strategist predicts every major contest in 2014 will have a personalized group devoted to attacking the opposition.

NEW ORLEANS - MAY 3: Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu shakes hands with a supporter during a swearing in ceremony for her brother Mitchell Landrieu, who is now Mayor of New Orleans May 3, 2010 in New Orleans, Louisiana. Mayor Landrieu is inheriting a host of disaster related issues from Hurricane Katrina and the current oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico as he takes over for Mayor Ray Nagin.
National Journal
Alex Roarty and Scott Bland
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Alex Roarty and Scott Bland
Feb. 3, 2014, 4:56 p.m.

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.”

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