Wall Street Journal: Inside the Republican Money Machine

This article originally appeared in the Wall Street Journal on September 24, 2010.


Inside the Republican Money Machine
This year GOP backers have come close to matching spending by independent Democratic groups, thus leveling the playing field.

By: Fred Barnes

Republican strategists Ed Gillespie and Karl Rove were appalled last winter as they searched out well-funded conservative groups that were preparing to support GOP congressional candidates in the 2010 midterm. They sensed there were too few of them and that a once-in-a-generation opportunity might be lost. Short of money and grass-roots activism, GOP candidates would be easy prey for lavishly funded Democratic opponents—not to mention liberal groups committed to spending hundreds of millions on attack ads.

This scenario has been averted. Conservatives and Republicans have organized an army of independent groups in a shrewd, collaborative and well-financed effort. While old standbys—the National Rifle Association, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce—are involved, they now have reinforcements. They’ve come close to matching overall spending by Democratic groups, thus leveling the campaign playing field and enhancing Republican chances of capturing the House, Senate, and more governorships and state legislatures in 2010.

The influence of the new coalition is already being felt. American Crossroads, a brainchild of Messrs. Gillespie and Rove, has poured $3 million into the Nevada Senate race, keeping the underfunded Republican candidate, Sharron Angle, from falling behind Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in the polls. (She led 46% to 45% in a Fox News poll last week.) In Ohio, when Republican Senate candidate Rob Portman was off the air in late July, American Crossroads stepped in with a wave of TV ads on his behalf. In August, the Chamber of Commerce took over with pro-Portman ads. A Quinnipiac poll last week pegged his lead over Democrat Lee Fisher at 55% to 35%.

Long-established conservative groups such as the pro-life Susan B. Anthony List are engaged in this midterm, but a more recent newcomer, Americans for Prosperity (AFP), is also playing a major role, perhaps a decisive one. It has targeted 60 Democratic incumbents and expects to spend $35 million to $45 million to defeat them.

“We’re not some Washington, D.C. group,” says AFP President Tim Phillips. With bus tours, rallies, TV spots, phone calls, door-to-door contacts and recruitment of volunteers, this group is building what he calls “an honest to goodness ground game” manned by thousands of conservative activists.

The Democratic lead in fund-raising is itself a relatively recent phenomenon. Republicans spent more in 2006, but Democrats surged ahead in 2008, spending $956 million to the Republicans’ $792 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. This includes spending by groups independent of the party or the candidate.

Democrats were simply quicker than Republicans to skirt, quite legally, the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law that took effect in 2003. That legislation barred high-dollar (or “soft money”) donations to political parties. It prompted wealthy liberals, for example, to fund independent expenditures through groups such as MoveOn.org. Rich conservatives were less active until this year.

Campaign finance watchdogs and the media were never terribly concerned when liberal groups were drubbing conservatives in independent expenditures. Now they profess shock that millions are being spent to boost Republican candidates and the names of wealthy donors aren’t disclosed.

In any event, four of the top five independent groups—the AFL-CIO, Service Employees International Union, Services Employees Local 1999, and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee—support Democratic campaigns. The lone conservative group in the top five is the Susan B. Anthony List. Based on data released by the Federal Election Commission, however, the overall gap has narrowed: As of Sept. 18, money spent on behalf of Democratic candidates from all reported sources totaled $389,023,152, only slightly more than the $377,689,336 for Republicans.

The conservative alliance grew out of a meeting at Mr. Rove’s Washington home in April. Nineteen independent expenditure groups, old and new, were represented. The result was an extraordinary division of labor and the sharing of spending plans and political data. American Crossroads, for example, paid the Republican National Committee $1.5 million for a micro-targeted voter file and immediately shared the information.

Independent groups are not permitted to “coordinate” with candidates or their campaigns. So they watch for signals of what candidates and party committees are planning and try to avoid duplication, particularly in airing TV spots.

Many of the new groups are targeting the House. Scott Reed, the strategist who managed Bob Dole’s presidential campaign in 1996, established the Commission on Hope, Growth, and Opportunity this summer. He expects to raise $25 million to help underfunded Republican candidates regain control of the House. Another newly formed group, the American Action Network headed by former Minnesota Sen. Norm Coleman, may spend $15 million or more. Two other groups, the 60 Plus Association and Americans for Job Security, are running TV ads against vulnerable Democrats like House veteran Rich Boucher of Virginia.

American Crossroads, meanwhile, is concentrating on 11 Senate races. It has spent heavily in Missouri on behalf of Roy Blunt, who leads Democrat Robin Carnahan 52% to 44% in the latest Rasmussen poll. The group intends to defend Mr. Blunt against attack ads for his being a “Washington insider,” his support of the Troubled Asset Relief Program, and even for buying a house in Georgetown. “Roy Blunt has on boxing gloves and Robin Carnahan has knives out,” an AC spokesman says.

The Chamber of Commerce, an old reliable in campaigns, has been reinvigorated under the direction of Bill Miller. Its budget for the midterm is $75 million. One of its recent TV ads aired between innings of a Boston Red Sox baseball game. Succinct and punchy, it zinged Paul Hodes, the Democratic Senate candidate in New Hampshire, for voting for the stimulus, ObamaCare and cap and trade.

Meanwhile, the Republican Governors Association under Haley Barbour has become a money-raising phenomenon. Its spending—$65 million or more—will finance a Republican get-out-the-vote effort in many of the 37 states with governors’ races, which will also benefit state and local GOP candidates by boosting turnout.

In earlier elections, the Washington-based Republican committees were counted on for critical outside support to aid campaigns. But the Republican National Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee, short on funds, have cut back this year. That probably won’t matter. Independent groups have taken up the slack, and then some.

Mr. Barnes is executive editor of the Weekly Standard and a commentator on Fox News Channel.

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