How a super PAC helped House Republicans survive the ‘green wave’
Congressional Leadership Fund spent more than $140 million as GOP beat expectations
Unlike in 2018, this year’s “green wave” of Democratic money didn’t produce a “blue wave” of victories, thanks in part to a super PAC that helped Republicans close the spending gap.
Congressional Leadership Fund, a group aligned with House GOP leadership, spent more than $140 million, a record for the most money a House-focused super PAC has spent in an election cycle and narrowly outspending its Democratic counterpart, House Majority PAC. In some races, CLF carried the bulk of the GOP’s ad spending.
Ballots are still being counted in several competitive races, but as of Tuesday evening, no House Republican has lost reelection, and the GOP has netted six House seats.
“They deserve a lot of credit for these impressive GOP victories,” said Andrea Bozek, a Republican strategist who has worked for both House and Senate campaign committees. Bozek said the group “kept their heads down” and applied its fundraising power on unique ads and, in some cases, a field program for candidates.
Although CLF helped close the spending gap, the group’s president, Dan Conston, said in an interview Monday that candidate fundraising remains a significant challenge.
“I do think hard-dollar and specifically small-dollar fundraising is the single biggest structural problem House Republicans have,” Conston said. “And it is not something that we can avoid.”
Super PACs can raise and spend unlimited amounts, but they do not get the discounted ad rates that candidates, who are subject to contribution limits, get from television stations.
CLF spent in 54 House races in the 2020 cycle and dropped $3 million or more in 22 of those races, according to a memo the group sent to donors Tuesday. Of those 22 races, Republicans so far have won 17 and lost two.
Conston said he started the 2020 cycle under the theory that President Donald Trump would turn out his core supporters, boosting Republicans in GOP-leaning districts. He expected voters in suburban districts to direct their dissatisfaction with Trump at the top of the ticket but to vote for Republicans further down the ballot.
“Going back to the original theory of the case, it’s almost to a T what happened,” said Conston, who also worked for CLF in the 2012, 2014 and 2016 election cycles.
Heading into Election Day, Republicans were bracing for losses.
But Conston said it became clear on election night that there was “some element of an underreported vote for President Trump both in suburban districts and rural districts.”
Asked in a Tuesday interview whether he was surprised by the House race results, Conston said the Republican gains were a “best-case scenario.”
“There was a reason we invested in the offensive races that we did. And there was a reason we invested in the key defensive suburban seats that we did. Many of them were close, but basically everything broke our way,” Conston said.
“The ultimate result is certainly better than we feared,” he added.
Conston acknowledged there would have to be a “healthy conversation” among pollsters about how to gauge potential turnout and reach voters who are not prone to pick up their phones.
One Democratic strategist noted that CLF did not spend in a number of races that ended up being closer than expected in states such as Michigan and Pennsylvania. Democrats believe their aggressive spending deep into GOP territory forced Republicans to respond in kind, diverting resources from other races.
“Of the places where we spent the most money, $3 million or more, we overwhelmingly won,” Conston said when asked whether he regretted not spending in some districts. “And ultimately, there was only so much money to go between races.”
Closing the gap
CLF spent millions on individual races in part because House GOP candidates were vastly outspent by Democrats. House Democrats tapped into small-dollar donor enthusiasm to build expansive fundraising lists and posted eye-popping quarterly numbers, which allowed them to spend millions on the airwaves.
CLF spent $6.4 million in Texas’ 22nd District in the Houston suburbs, funding all of the GOP television ads in the race. The group also opened a field office in the district to help contact voters. Former Fort Bend Sheriff Troy Nehls ultimately defeated Democrat Sri Preston Kulkarni in the open-seat race.
The group raised $160 million in the 2020 cycle, according to the memo to donors. CLF’s fundraising included a $26 million transfer from its nonprofit arm, American Action Network, which does not have to disclose its donors, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. CLF also received donations from organizations connected to Republican billionaire Sheldon Adelson.
Like other campaigns and outside groups, CLF had to shift gears when the coronavirus pandemic hit. It invested $10 million in field operations, including door-knocking and a “ballot chase” program targeting lower-propensity GOP voters that encouraged them to return mail ballots.
CLF made an “eight figure” investment in digital ads. With voters stuck at home, the group boosted spending on so-called connected devices, or platforms that host streaming services such as Hulu and YouTube TV.
The pandemic also appeared to shift the national political environment away from Trump, and CLF began to shift more spending to defend sitting Republicans. Heading into Election Day, the majority of CLF’s spending went toward defending incumbents and GOP-held open seats.
On the airwaves, CLF also launched varied ads in targeted districts, a departure from some super PAC ads that one strategist described as “cookie cutter.” Conston said the group took pains to tailor ads to specific districts, citing its work tying Democrats to liberal calls to “defund the police.”
“In some culturally conservative districts, we focused on the lawlessness of the left and the liberal mob. In Staten Island, with a particularly police-heavy presence, we had former cops talking about how marchers betrayed the police,” Conston said. “And then in suburban Philadelphia, or elsewhere in suburban areas, we knew that we needed to frame this argument more as a public safety issue.”
Even though CLF was able to spend heavily in these races, Conston and other Republicans say the party still faces a broader problem when it comes to fundraising. One GOP strategist with experience in House races said the spending disparity between Democratic and Republican candidates “should be a wake-up call and alarms should be sounding.”
“You should never rely on a super PAC or committee to come help you,” the strategist said.