Super-PACs Ramp Up Spending With Congress Control at Stake

Redistricting obliterated his House seat serving central Iowa. Still, Republican Representative Tom Latham has something going for him: a 4-1 cash edge in his re-election race against Democratic Representative Leonard Boswell in a merged district.

A Democrat-allied super-PAC wants to blunt that advantage. The House Majority PAC has spent more than $395,000 against Latham, airing television ads that claim he ignores needs of the unemployed and has ties with “obstructionist” Republican leaders. To run his own ads, Latham has tapped a re-election fund that reached $1.9 million at the end of 2011.

The Iowa race is one of the best examples of the large sums that super-PACs are pouring into 2012 congressional contests, said Dave Wasserman, House editor of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. Analysts say the outside PACs are transforming some races that will help determine which party ends up controlling the House and Senate, just as they are reshaping spending on the presidential campaigns.

“Judging from what we saw in 2010, super-PACs will have a huge impact on Senate and House races,” said Bill Allison, editorial director of the nonpartisan Sunlight Foundation, which tracks campaign giving.

So far this cycle, super-PACs have spent $5.8 million on congressional races, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington group that tracks political spending. Democrats need 25 seats to take control of the House from Republicans, while Republicans need as few as three seats to take control of the Senate from the Democrats.

Unlimited Donations

Using unlimited donations, super-PACs are infusing congressional races with money to bolster favored candidates and target those they oppose with a flood of negative ads and other spending.

Some candidates affected include Republican Senator Scott Brown of Massachusetts, who the Rethink PAC is targeting, and Republican Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah, who is seeing the Tea Party group FreedomWorks finance a drive against him in the primary. Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri is facing off against the fundraising of the Republican-leaning group American Crossroads while benefiting from spending by Democratic-leaning Majority PAC.

Meanwhile, Tea Party-backed freshmen representatives, including Allen West of Florida and Sean Duffy of Wisconsin, are being targeted by the Democratic-leaning group House Majority PAC.

Spending Restrictions

The outgrowth of a January 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision barring restrictions on independent spending by companies and unions, these expenditures gave Republicans an edge in the 2010 midterm election. Spending by super-PACs and independent expenditures by non-profit groups helped Republicans keep or gain Senate seats in Pennsylvania, Florida, Missouri and Illinois and defeat Democratic House members including Dan Maffei of New York.

Of $305 million in spending by the super-PACs and nonprofits in 2010, conservative-leaning groups outspent liberal-leaning ones by a 2-1 ratio. Among Super-PACs, American Crossroads -- founded by Republican strategists Karl Rove and Ed Gillespie -- spent the most, with $21.6 million.

This time, Democrats are determined to catch up.

“We didn’t lose the House in 2010 to House Republicans,” said Representative Steve Israel of New York, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “We lost it to House Republican super-PACs. In 2010, our allies were spinning into a tsunami. In 2012, I don’t believe that they will let that happen again.”

While the groups can’t coordinate with candidates and parties, many are populated by former lawmakers and party committee officials.

Congressional Leadership Fund

The chairman of the Congressional Leadership Fund -- a super-PAC bolstering Republican House candidates -- is former Minnesota Republican Senator Norm Coleman, and its president is Brian Walsh, a former political director for the National Republican Congressional Committee. Speaker John Boehner and other House Republican leaders hosted a kick-off cocktail reception at the Capitol Hill Club Nov. 2 for the group, which has raised $130,600 this cycle, according to the CRP.

The Majority PAC, a group that wants to help Democrats retain Senate control, has raised $2.5 million so far and is led by Rebecca Lambe, a longtime strategist to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and his former chief of staff, Susan McCue. The House Majority PAC is led by Alixandria Lapp, the former deputy executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. It has raised $3 million.

Leaving Capitol Hill

Aides to current party leaders are leaving Capitol Hill to set up groups. John Murray, former deputy chief of staff to House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, in October became president of YG Action Fund. It seeks to pour $30 million into races to help Republican House candidates, through the Super-PAC and two new nonprofit groups. Other former Cantor aides involved are Rob Collins, Cantor’s former chief of staff, and Brad Dayspring, who until late February was Cantor’s deputy chief of staff.

The biggest-spending Super-PAC remains Rove’s American Crossroads, which has raised $23.4 million for presidential and congressional elections this cycle. The group says it will focus on winning Republican control of the Senate. To that end, it is considering plans to weigh in on the race to help Brown retain his seat and to elect Republicans to Democratic seats held by McCaskill, Senator Jon Tester of Montana, and retiring Senator Jim Webb of Virginia.

Seeking Majority Control

“The Senate is where we are focused on trying to gain the majority,” said Nate Hodson, a spokesman for the group.

Some super-PACs have another agenda. A few conservative-leaning groups are trying to elect their chosen Republican candidates over more moderate Republicans in primaries.

The anti-tax group Club for Growth has a super-PAC that has raised $3.4 million and has spent $469,000 targeting Texas Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst, a Republican, in his bid for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by retiring Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, a Republican. The group favors Ted Cruz, the state’s former solicitor general. The group also backs former Representative Mark Neumann in Wisconsin’s Republican Senate primary, and has spent $51,000 seeking to defeat his top contender, former Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson.

A super-PAC operated by FreedomWorks for America, a group led by former Republican House Majority Leader Dick Armey that supports the Tea Party movement, is eyeing two Republican senators for defeat: Hatch and Richard Lugar of Indiana. The group has spent more than $25,000 against Lugar so far, and more than $60,000 to aid his primary opponent, state Treasurer Richard Mourdock.

Anti-Hatch Ads

The FreedomWorks super-PAC has already spent $392,000 against Hatch in online ad development, direct mail and grassroots organizing. The group opposes him because of his past support of issues, including a bailout of the nation’s banks and federal funding for stem-cell research.

“That’s more than they’ve spent fighting President Obama, so I must really be a bad guy in their eyes,” said Hatch, who has spent money airing response ads.

Meanwhile, a nonpartisan, anti-incumbent Super-PAC, the Campaign for Primary Accountability, asserted itself into Ohio House primary races this past week, as voters went to the polls as part of Super Tuesday balloting.

The Texas-based Super-PAC, which says it aims to boost primary turnout in one-party dominated districts and is funded primarily by construction company owner Leo Linbeck III, spent $146,000 targeting Democratic Representative Marcy Kaptur in her successful race against Democratic Representative Dennis Kucinich. The group, which also spent $107,000 for Kucinich, favored him because he more often opposes his party leaders on issues, said Curtis Ellis a spokesman for the group.

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the group has spent $49,000 against Ohio Republican Representative Jean Schmidt, who lost a four-way Republican primary to Brad Wenstrup.

‘Quite Consequential’

As the elections unfold, super-PACs and their donors could have more significant effects on individual congressional races than on the presidential contest, said Richard Hasen, a professor at the University of California Irvine who studies election law. That’s particularly the case in rural states where TV ads are less expensive, he said.

“In House and Senate races, spending $1 million could be quite consequential,” Hasen said. “Super-PAC money could play a dominant role in some of these races.”

With the outside money flowing, some candidates are trying to assert control.

In the Massachusetts Senate contest, Republican Brown and Democratic rival Elizabeth Warren struck an accord. If any super-PAC spends money in the race, the candidate benefiting must donate half the value of the ad buy to a charity of the other’s choosing from their re-election coffers.

No outside spending on ads has occurred since, Brown said in an interview.

In a California House race, as many as three super-PACs are raising funds to support Representative Howard Berman, who faces Representative Brad Sherman in a Democratic incumbent-on-incumbent matchup. Sherman accuses Berman of refusing to reject aid from the groups.

It’s giving Sherman a slight edge in the race, said Wasserman of the Cook Political Report. “It plays into the image of Berman as a D.C. insider,” he said.

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