Several Republican outside groups are promising to spend big money in key House and Senate races this fall, but it remains to be seen whether they’ll have the dollars to have an impact.
When American Crossroads, a newly formed 527 group, raised a meager $200 in May, Republicans had flashbacks to last cycle. In 2008, Freedom’s Watch burst onto the scene promising to spend $200 million to bolster GOP candidates but ended up spending less than a quarter of that amount.
Crossroads, and its new affiliate 501(c)(4) American Crossroads GPS, bounced back to raise almost $8.5 million in June — but that was still a fraction of the $50 million the group plans to spend between now and Election Day.
Freedom’s Watch was largely built around the ability and inclination of one person (wealthy gaming executive Sheldon Adelson) to contribute. When his funds dried up, the group’s ads disappeared from the airwaves or never materialized in the first place.
Republicans are determined not to make the same mistake twice.
“We have a very broad fundraising base that is reaching out to lots of people,” according to Crossroads President Steven Law.
Carl Forti, a veteran of the National Republican Congressional Committee, was executive vice president of issue advocacy for Freedom’s Watch last cycle and is now with Law at Crossroads as the group’s political director. Jonathan Collegio, who also worked at the NRCC as well as the National Association of Broadcasters, just signed on to be the communications director.
But Crossroads is not the only Republican group soliciting donations and looking to get involved this year.
Karl Rove and former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie are trying to put infrastructure in place to take advantage of conservative enthusiasm, frustration and anger now that Republicans are in the minority. Their blueprint isn’t dissimilar to what former Clinton White House Chief of Staff John Podesta set up in 2004 on the Democratic side with the Center for American Progress.
The GOP group, American Action Network, is a 501(c)(4) led by Rob Collins, who was a top adviser to House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.). Pete Meachum recently left his position as chief of staff to retiring Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite (R-Fla.) to join the group as well.
The American Action Forum, a 501(c)(3) led by Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a former economic adviser to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in the 2008 presidential campaign, will focus on policy and the think tank element of the group.
Resurgent Republic is a collection of prominent Republican pollsters that looks like the GOP counterpart to Democracy Corps, which is run by Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg and operative James Carville.
All the groups have boards of directors filled with former Senators, Congressmen, governors and Cabinet members who are expected to help raise millions of dollars. There is scuttlebutt that these groups are receptacles for disenchanted donors to the RNC, but since these outside groups are not subject to federal contribution limits, they aren’t necessarily competing for the same dollars.
Republican operatives are increasingly confident that these groups will be well-funded, but in the aftermath of the Freedom’s Watch fiasco, it’s all speculation until the money comes in. Groups such as Crossroads have until July 20 to file their June financial statements with the Internal Revenue Service.
Even if the money materializes, it has yet to be determined whether and how the dozens of competitive races will be divided between the groups.
Crossroads appears to be primarily focused on the Senate (since it has already announced it is targeting key races in 10 states), while the American Action Network will focus on the House. But it appears that both groups want to reserve the right to play in any race they want, depending on the situation and the desires of their donors.
Crossroads just extended its television ad buy against Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid into a fourth week and has now spent close to half a million dollars against the Nevada Democrat.
According to Law, Crossroads also plans to develop “full-service” political operations in the largest states, including Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida.
“Many independent groups tend to be media heavy, and we’ll certainly emphasize advertising,” Law explained, “but we want the capability to have boots on the ground and communicate directly with voters.”
As hot races develop over the next four months, there will be a temptation for multiple groups to swoop in on particular high-profile contests and take credit for an eventual victory, according to another GOP strategist.
“The question is, is anyone there to pick up the scraps and put races into position to win?” according to the source, who referred to MoveOn.org’s important role in the 2006 cycle when the liberal group focused on second- and third-tier Democratic opportunities and helped turn them into top-tier contests.
“I don’t know if there is a plan to do that. I don’t know if there is money to do that,” the Republican added.
For now, there is some communication between American Crossroads and the American Action Network, particularly since the two groups share an office suite on New York Avenue Northwest in Washington, D.C.
There is also considerable overlap in people involved in the groups. Rove has his hand in multiple groups, and Gillespie is involved with the Action Network, Crossroads and Resurgent Republic in addition to being chairman of the Republican State Leadership Committee, which focuses on state legislative races.
Former NRCC Chairman Tom Reynolds is on the Action Network board and is vice chairman of the RSLC. (Reynolds was New York Assembly Minority Leader before he came to Congress.) Former RNC Chairman Mike Duncan is chairman of the Crossroads board and is involved with an RSLC redistricting project as well.
“We are sharing information among many of the groups that are involved this election cycle with the goal of minimizing a duplication of effort,” said Law, a former chief legal officer and general counsel of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Crossroads can communicate with the chamber, Action Network and other outside groups but is prohibited from coordinating with the party campaign committees.
“There’s not some master plan,” according to one GOP consultant, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of potentially getting work for the groups. “The well-organized right’ is never well-organized.”