Super PACs Play Growing Role in Congressional Races

Super PACs Play Growing Role in Congressional Races

By Caitlin Huey-Burns - February 16, 2012

A press release was recently sent out in Ohio, West Virginia and Montana accusing the recipients' respective Democratic U.S. senators, all of whom are up for re-election, of embracing "the Washington insider culture" by opposing an amendment to a congressional insider-trading bill.

This seems like the kind of opposition blast delivered by the National Republican Senatorial Committee, an official party group tasked with getting GOP candidates elected to the Senate. Instead, it was the work of Crossroads GPS, the political arm of American Crossroads, a super PAC focused on getting a Republican majority in the Senate -- and a Republican in the White House.

This group, and others like it, are on course to rival the fundraising of national party committees for congressional races -- or even exceed it. They raise money more quickly and spend it earlier than the parties can, and in doing so, are grabbing the steering wheel from those national bodies.

"What's basically happening is candidates and parties are losing control of messaging," says former Virginia Rep. Tom Davis, who served as National Republican Congressional Committee chairman. "It's the law of unintended consequences on steroids. It has heightened the ideological polarization of the parties."

Outside groups aren't new to political campaigns. Davis and other Republican operatives blame the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform act that placed limits on party committee fundraising. Then, after the 2010 Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, corporations, unions, individuals and other groups can now raise and spend unlimited amounts of money to influence elections.

And they can operate with little overhead costs. Crossroads, for example, has about 16 paid staffers in Washington, including a president, chief operating officer, a research director and staff, online media coordinators, a finance team and administrators -- a leaner version of the teams you'll find at the national party committees offices near the Capitol.

"The super PACs are taking over; they are the parties," says Paul Wilson, whose firm, Wilson-Grand Communications, worked with American Crossroads in the 2010 cycle. "It is just far easier to be a super PAC and make the decision swiftly and decisively and early, and the traditional party structure is ill-equipped. . . . The system is just very strange right now." 

Several other outside groups are involved in congressional races, too: Majority PAC is focused on preserving the Democratic majority in the Senate; House Majority PAC works to get Democrats elected to the lower chamber; and Conservative Leadership Fund is helping Republicans keep their majority in the House. And there are dozens of other entities dedicated to specific issues.

These groups and national party committees share common goals, and many former staffers on the official side have gone to work for the outside groups.

"Certainly the parties would rather have control over their own message," says Richard Hasen, a campaign finance expert and professor of law and political science at University of California-Irvine School of Law. "But the parties are very strong. The parties are very important for coordinating messages -- getting out a message that is going to help state and national candidates."

Much like establishment committees, outside groups run television and radio ads, commission polling, fundraise, craft messaging, mail literature and make phone calls. The only thing they can't do is coordinate with the candidates, which  is reserved for the official party offices.

Party operatives on both sides of the aisle credit outside groups with helping to sweep Republicans into the majority in the House in 2010, and this cycle those groups will be even more involved in congressional races. But is this increased presence and influence diminishing the role of the party apparatus?

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Caitlin Huey-Burns is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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