Some Republican Senate candidates are too big to fail.
Which is why GOP operatives are dumping millions of dollars in unaccountable campaign cash into competitive 2012 Senate races where their candidates have fallen behind Democratic opponents. Groups like the Karl Rove-affiliated Crossroads GPS have already bought hundreds of TV ads in the key state of Ohio, where incumbent Senator Sherrod Brown is facing a less-than-inspired challenge from Republican State Treasurer Josh Mandel.
This kind of bailout advertising blitz would not have been possible before 2010, when a trio of Supreme Court decisions reversed limits on political activity by a range of independent groups. Now, so called “Super PACs” and 501(c)(4) nonprofits — “social welfare organizations” that can accept unlimited amounts of money from anonymous donors as long they don’t use the majority of their cash on electioneering — like Crossroads can “sponsor ads that specifically advocate the election or defeat of a candidate,” according to Colby College campaign finance scholar Anthony Corrado.
An outspoken populist and unabashed progressive who served seven terms in the House before defeating Senator Mike DeWine in the Democratic wave year of 2006, Brown has proven an effective messenger on the economy in a major swing state where Republicans have long made inroads among the socially conservative white working class; they even won the governor’s mansion from a once-popular Democratic incumbent with broad bipartisan appeal in 2010. But an attempt to gut labor rights for public employees was just resoundingly rejected in a statewide referendum and has hurt the GOP’s chances going into next fall’s elections.
Brown, who is more popular than President Obama in the state, is the obvious favorite over Mandel, an untested 34-year-old whose campaign has been marked by blunders like illegally using photos from the Columbus Dispatch on his website, which he subsequently removed after being caught. According to the latest polls, Brown’s lead has expanded to 15 points.
Enter Karl Rove.
A year before the election, his Crossroads GPS group has already spent over half a million dollars airing television commercials attacking Brown for his liberal voting record and association with Barack Obama. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has spent over $1.5 million ripping Brown on the airwaves for raising energy taxes and voting for the health care reform law. The nonpartisan fact-check group Politifact called the ads “mostly false.”
“The Crossroads GPS ads are airing to make sure Senator Brown is held accountable for his record, which is far to the left of Ohio,” said Nate Hodson, a spokesman for the group.
The barrage is best understood as a response to Mandel’s weak standing with voters — and Sherrod Brown’s persona as a champion of labor and the working class.
“I think he is much like Elizabeth Warren in his ability and willingness to speak very directly about the Republican agenda, their philosophy, their support for the super-rich vis-à-vis the middle class,” said former Ohio Governor Ted Strickland, whose failed 2010 re-election bid was damaged by early Super PAC spending. “He is not a wallflower and he does not sit idly by and let the right wing get by without being directly and effectively challenged.”
The comparison with Warren is telling, because it is she and Brown who have attracted more early Super PAC spending than any other Democrats in the country. Warren’s opponent, Scott Brown of Massachusetts, though perhaps a more able politician than Mandel, is in a tough position in a Democratic state and his seat, like that in Ohio, is vital to the Republicans’ hopes of taking back the Senate in the fall.
“American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS, they’re looking to retake the Senate, and there’s four seats they need to do that,” said Bill Allison, editorial director at the Sunlight Foundation, a good government group. “The idea with the early spending is you try to freeze in the public’s mind a negative image of a candidate, and also drive up name recognition of the challenger. In that sense, Super PACs play a huge role.”
It doesn’t hurt that Democrats like Warren and Brown are anathema to the Republican base.
“What these outside groups are looking at is, they want to pick up seats, but also knock out some of the people they really don’t like,” said Kyle Kondik, an analyst at the University of Virginia Center for Politics. “It’s one thing to want to beat an incumbent. Of course Republicans want to beat Jon Tester in Montana, Claire McCaskill [in Missouri], but I think they would relish beating Brown a bit more. Also, I think Josh Mandel, the state treasurer in the race, is someone who national Republicans would like to boost up. Whether he’s ready for prime time is a totally different story.”
Crossroads GPS is the 501(c)(4) affiliate of American Crossroads, the Super PAC founded by Rove and other top Republican officials that spent nearly $40 million on Senate and House races in 2010.
This unregulated campaign finance environment harkens back to the Watergate era, when sustained public outrage produced some of the first major election reform laws in decades.
“What we have now is a situation where it is extremely easy for people with large amounts of money for shaping a congressional race to put it in early,” said Richard Briffault, a Columbia law professor who specializes in campaign finance. “The so-called independent money is increasingly less about ideology and more about targeting or helping — more commonly targeting — specific candidates. These are in effect shadow campaigns, maintaining a little bit of distance from campaigns because they have to do so legally, but basically being totally supportive, supporting or opposing a particular candidate.”
And the trend away from traditional campaign organizations toward these stealth operations will only continue as operatives learn to test the limits of the Federal Election Commission’s weakened enforcement powers.
“There’s still going to be limits on what people can give directly to candidates, which is why you’re seeing these shadow campaigns, these double campaigns,” added Briffault. “Increasingly the candidates’ campaigns will matter less and shadow campaigns will matter more.”