It wasn’t long after the votes had been counted that the knives came out for Republican-leaning super PACs. For months, political pundits had speculated that spending by these outside groups could defeat Barack Obama, give the GOP a majority in the U.S. Senate, and reshape the political landscape. Instead, 2012 reaffirmed the status quo. Democrats retained the White House and expanded their majority in the Senate, while Republicans held the House of Representatives and most state legislatures. It was tempting to conclude that much of the money had been wasted.
Conservative bloggers denounced the super PACs for backing establishment candidates and lining the pockets of Beltway consultants. The left-leaning Sunlight Foundation claimed that most of the money spent by outside groups — two-thirds of their total expenditures, and about 99 percent of the money spent by Karl Rove’s American Crossroads — went to losing candidates. Charles Schumer crowed, “If [American] Crossroads was a business and Karl Rove was the CEO, he’d be fired for getting a poor return for his investors.” Obama strategist David Axelrod said GOP donors should demand a refund.
But let’s remember the world before center-right organizations played a role in advancing conservative policies and candidates. Recall Bill Clinton’s renting out the Lincoln Bedroom and selling seats on Air Force One? He did these things in pursuit of campaign cash; the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton-Gore campaign amassed a war chest of $81 million for the spring and summer of 1996. While Bob Dole slogged through the GOP primaries, Democrats launched a then-unprecedented advertising blitz (organized by Dick Morris), spending $1 million or more each week from late 1995 until August of 1996. While the DNC pummeled Dole, labor unions added another $50 million in negative ads against GOP congressional candidates.
By the time Dole accepted the Republican presidential nomination in August and received $62 million in general-election funds from the U.S. Treasury, the race had moved irreversibly in Clinton’s favor. Dole lost in a landslide, carrying only 19 states. GOP congressional candidates were caught in the backwash, and Republicans lost seats in the House of Representatives.
The passage of the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance legislation in 2002 made it almost impossible for the parties to pay for advertising campaigns of that scale. It banned personal contributions to party committees in excess of $37,000 and outlawed all corporate contributions to these committees. These restrictions gave rise to a plethora of outside political-advocacy organizations operating under Section 527 of the Internal Revenue Code, many of them dubbed “super PACs” (“PAC” meaning “political-action committee”). By prohibiting political parties from accepting large contributions, McCain-Feingold simply redirected the funds to these groups, which were often run by party operatives and in some cases did not have to disclose their donors.
Liberals moved first to create such groups. In 2004, George Soros, Peter Lewis, and other donors funded Americans Coming Together (ACT), which used a sophisticated database of liberal voters to encourage voter turnout. The Media Fund, another Soros-backed group, paid for political advertising. ACT field organizers fanned out across Ohio, Florida, and other swing states, registering voters, knocking on doors, and collecting absentee ballots.