Politics & Policy

Hey, Big Spender

King of the Hill: Senate majority leader Harry Reid (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Will Harry Reid’s super PAC, and intimidated GOP donors, make the difference for the Democrats?

The Republican wave in 2010 may, in the end, be what saves Democrats in 2014.

Four years ago, when Harry Reid thought he and his Senate majority were vulnerable, Democrats swooped into action, creating a super PAC known as Commonsense Ten, which devoted itself to protecting embattled Democrats and expanding their majority in the Senate. In late July of that year, it secured a landmark ruling from the Federal Election Commission that allowed it to rake in unlimited donations from corporations and labor unions.

In the following year, 2011, Commonsense Ten renamed itself the Senate Majority PAC and Reid’s top political strategist, Rebecca Lambe, took the reins. If the Senate Democrats fighting for their political lives survive the November elections, they will have Reid, Lambe, and her PAC to thank. It has ramped up its spending more than tenfold since 2010, rising from about $3.2 million four years ago to more than $35 million this cycle, to protect the party’s incumbents and the Democrats’ Senate majority.

“Democrats have come back significantly into the outside spending game in a way that they weren’t doing,” says Steven Law, the president and chief executive officer of American Crossroads, which has since 2010 been the dominant super PAC on the right.

Senate Majority PAC has given Democrats some distinct advantages, allowing them to attack Republicans early in the campaign season on explicitly political terms. Super PACs are required to disclose their donors, but they are permitted to raise unlimited funds and to run ads urging citizens to support or oppose political candidates. The Senate Majority PAC, which has outraised every super PAC on the right (the closest is Freedom Partners Action Fund, which has hauled in $15.6 million), was up with ads against Arkansas representative Tom Cotton and Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell as early as June 2013. By November of the same year, it was rallying around North Carolina senator Kay Hagan.

A handful of former Reid advisers sit atop the organization: His former chief of staff, Susan McCue, is the co-chairman, and his former communications director, Craig Varoga, runs Patriot Majority, the nonprofit group affiliated with the PAC. By dint of their affiliation with the Senate majority leader alone, Reid’s former staffers give Senate Majority PAC the aura of a one-stop shop for top-dollar Democratic donors looking to lend their party a hand. Former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg cut them a check for $2.5 million; the liberal hedge-fund manager Tom Steyer dropped the group $5 million; the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees has donated $500,000.

So, with less than three weeks to go until Election Day, murmurs are beginning to arise on the right, with many scratching their heads and wondering why Republicans don’t have an answer to the Democrats’ dominant PAC of the 2014 cycle. National Republican Senatorial Committee vice chairman Rob Portman, who is leading the committee’s fundraising efforts this year, voiced the complaint in a recent meeting with National Review.

Steven Law says that Republicans “ought to look closely at how Reid and [New York senator Chuck] Schumer raised money early for outside groups helping their Senate candidates.” The existence of the Reid organization has discouraged the creation of smaller, state-based PACs formed around individual candidates and allowed for a central organizing structure, he says.

Several Republicans closely tied to the GOP donor community say one reason Republicans haven’t established such a national PAC, headed by, say, former staffers of Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, is the reluctance of Republican donors to make their political donations public. In the era of IRS targeting, many Republican donors have grown skittish, wary of making themselves or their companies vulnerable to scrutiny from the media or retribution from the government.

“I wish we had an equivalent,” says a Republican strategist employed by one of the party’s top donors. “But their advantage is a willingness among Democratic donors to give disclosed money. If McConnell set up a super PAC there wouldn’t be the same appetite.”

#page#A senior GOP Senate aide who has been involved in several campaigns says donors who have given in excess of $10 million in disclosed donations in the past are unwilling to do so any longer.

Republicans point to a handful of headline-making incidents they say have deterred donors from making public contributions — chief among them the case of Frank VanderSloot, who, after making a donation to Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign, found himself listed on the Obama campaign’s website on a list of GOP donors with “less-than-reputable” character, and who went on to receive two IRS audits; and that of former Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich, who was ousted from his position in April after it was revealed that he had contributed money in 2008 to oppose the legalization of same-sex marriage in California (the online dating website OkCupid, among others, had begun to push its users to boycott Mozilla’s Firefox web browser).

Then, of course, there is the experience of the Koch brothers, Charles and David, who have been featured in dozens of television ads, verbally flayed by Senate Democrats throughout the election cycle, and lambasted by Reid for everything from “actually trying to buy the country” to being flat-out “un-American.”

The Kochs, who in 1986 sat for a lengthy New York Times profile chronicling the family’s disputes and dramas, are today in virtual hibernation. Many Republican donors have followed suit.

“All the attacks on us definitely sent a message to people that if you support what we’re for and what we’re doing, you’re going to pay a price,” says Mark Holden, who serves as general counsel for Koch Industries. “And while some people are still willing to go forward, other people, understandably, aren’t willing to pay that price.”

Conservative donors have instead largely steered their money into 501(c)(4) social-welfare groups, which are not required to disclose their donors. The hitch: Unlike super PACs, whose purpose is by definition to influence the political process, social-welfare groups are required to spend more than 50 percent of their time on activities related to “social welfare” and their political advertisements cannot expressly advocate for or oppose specific candidates. Americans for Prosperity, a Koch-backed 501(c)(4), was on the air nearly as early as Senate Majority PAC, and it plans to spend $125 million by the end of the midterm season.

While anonymity is a priority for many Republican donors, there do exist super PACs on the right, chief among them Karl Rove’s American Crossroads, which spent over $100 million in the 2012 elections, second only to Restore Our Future, the PAC specifically devoted to electing Romney. This year, Crossroads has continued to haul in disclosed donations, but sources say that its dismal track record in 2012, when it was by far the dominant player on the scene, left many donors looking for something different.

In 2012, Crossroads dwarfed the spending by other super PACs; in doing so, it provided much of the centripetal force for Republicans two years ago that Senate Majority PAC is providing for Democrats today. “In a lot of ways, it was a Majority PAC before there was a Majority PAC,” says a top GOP Senate aide. The group took on not only the presidential race, but several Senate and House races, too. Of the four congressional races Crossroads invested in most heavily, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, it lost all four. Overall, in what was across the board a difficult year for Republicans, it won just over 20 percent of the races it was involved in.

“The major-donors class in the GOP hierarchy, they were all Crossroads donors,” says the Senate aide, but “that changed significantly after 2012.”

That helps to explain why, among super PACs on the Republican side, spending is more evenly spread this year. Crossroads has spent $17 million, but the Koch-backed Freedom Partners Action fund has spent $13.6 million and the Ending Spending Action Fund, a project of TD Ameritrade founder Joe Ricketts, has spent $13.5 million. In 2012, when Crossroads spent over $100 million, FreedomWorks came in second on the GOP side. It spent $19 million. Crossroads’ Law notes that it’s simply harder to get donors to open their wallets in a midterm-election year, when energy is lower all around.

Though Senate Majority PAC has many Republicans quaking, the centralized model has yet to be proven. “If they hold the Senate, they get all the credit. If they don’t, they will be goats,” says a top Republican strategist.

As the GOP looks to 2016, the Democrats’ top PAC has highlighted an issue that will increasingly become a focus for outside groups on the right: how to protect vulnerable incumbents. In 2016, several Republicans who rode into office in the tea-party wave of 2010, from Pennsylvania senator Pat Toomey to Illinois senator Mark Kirk and Kentucky senator Rand Paul will be up for reelection. It’s also a presidential-election year. Perhaps, if Majority PAC’s model proves effective, the specter of President Hillary Clinton will get the party’s top-dollar donors thinking differently about how they spend their money.

— Eliana Johnson is Washington editor of National Review.

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