Lapp bringing Dems back from the brink

June 17, 2011

Seven months into her pregnancy, Ali Lapp delivered a stern message to dejected rainmakers in the Democratic Party: Fight fire with fire. 

“We can’t allow ourselves to be outspent again three-to-one in the outside money game,” Lapp told Democratic insiders.

The comments came after Republicans had won 63 House seats in the midterm elections, a performance President Obama dubbed a “shellacking” for his party.  

Lapp warned that in order to avoid a repeat of 2010, Democrats needed to shift their strategy.

Lapp led by example this spring by launching House Majority PAC, which is aimed at electing Democrats to the lower chamber. But to get it off the ground, she needed to raise a lot of money, and fast. 

Following the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling in January 2010, Democrats tried to fix what they deemed a “radical” and “un-American” decision. 

But their legislation died in the Senate, and Democratic operatives failed to develop the independent expenditure (IE) operation conservatives did to take advantage of the new environment.

Conservative groups spent $190.5 million in 2010 while liberal groups were only able to muster $98.9 million, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. 

That disparity was playing out again this spring during the special-election race in the 26th district of New York. Democrat Kathy Hochul was facing a wealthy self-funding Republican opponent who was getting significant help from conservative groups, including the well-funded American Crossroads.

Lapp earlier this year decided New York-26 would be the first test of her House Majority PAC, which didn’t even have office space in Washington at that point. 

“We just can’t let this opportunity go,” she remembers thinking. “We believed that us going in would make it much more likely [Hochul] would win.”  

Lapp scrambled to raise money for a TV ad to help Hochul, but met with some initial reluctance. Donors were skeptical about the wisdom of spending money in a district that went solidly for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in 2008. 

“We really had to sell them on our strategy,” she said.

Lapp eventually settled on a message that tied Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) budget plan to an increase in the national debt. “Seniors sacrifice, the wealthy gain, our debt skyrockets,” the announcer said in the ad. 

It was a slight twist on the messaging being pushed by Hochul and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), which focused on the Ryan plan’s impact on Medicare benefits for seniors.

Lapp subsequently raised $350,000 for the ad, whose run-time was meant to match the second half of the $650,000 ad buy made by American Crossroads.

“Without them coming in, we would have just been swamped,” said strategist Jon Vogel, who was a media consultant for Hochul. “Crossroads and the [National Republican Congressional Committee] were just pounding Kathy.”

Hochul won the May 24 race, significantly boosting Democratic hopes of winning back the House next year. 

The Citizens United ruling struck down the prohibition against unions and corporations making unlimited expenditures on electioneering messaging. As a result, so-called super-PACs like Lapp’s group can raise unlimited amounts of money from corporations, unions and individuals.

In this regulatory environment, experts say, the super-PACs could soon become more important than the parties’ campaign committees.

“All of the money [that] in the pre-McCain-Feingold days would have been routed through the party committees’ soft-money accounts is now more likely to end up going into these new super-PACs,” said Scott Thomas, a former commissioner at the Federal Election Commission who now practices election law at the Washington firm Dickstein Shapiro.

Like American Crossroads, House Majority PAC must disclose its donors.

Lapp faces challenges going forward, the first being fundraising. She’ll need to draw attention to competitive House races during a presidential cycle when much of the focus will be on the top of the ticket and the battle for control of the Senate.

Lapp, who has never before led a fundraising effort, said, “There’s no question the House is in play in 2012. The last three elections have shown us that congressional politics are volatile, redistricting creates new opportunities, and the House Republicans are overreaching in a big way.”

Lapp’s supporters say she has the résumé and experience to help Democrats regain their majority. After all, Lapp has done it before.

Lapp served as the deputy director of the DCCC’s independent-expenditure arm in 2006, when now-Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel ran the committee. The Democrats retook the House that cycle, and several observers say the IE’s work that year became a model for the following cycles.

“She played a critical role in building the modern-day DCCC IE model,” said Vogel, who was the DCCC’s executive director last cycle. “She understands House races and how to put together a large IE operation. That is something House Democrats desperately need, and very few people have her expertise.”

Lapp also has Capitol Hill experience, having worked as the chief of staff to Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.) and on K Street, where she did a brief stint in the law and lobbying world, first at Parven Pomper Strategies and later at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld after it bought the smaller firm. Lapp was plucked to run the House Majority PAC from her position at Akin Gump. 

Politics runs deep in the Lapp family. Lapp’s husband, John, served as executive director at the DCCC under Emanuel.

John Lapp is now a consultant for the DCCC, and it would be illegal for Ali and John to coordinate their activities. 

Lapp said their dinner-table conversations steer clear of any conflicts of interest. 

“John and I have a very simple rule — we don’t talk about House campaigns that John is working on. Work is work. And home is home,” she said.

The Lapps have their hands full at home, with two sons and another boy due at the end of July. 

Pennsylvania-based strategist Saul Shorr, who worked with Lapp on her New York-26 TV ad, said, “I think it’s more than just experience. I think she’s just got really good political judgment and experience going with it.”

She’s also a good manager, he added.

“She’s collegial, but tough. She expects hard work and professional behavior from the people around her and gets the best out of the people she’s working with,” said Shorr, a media consultant. “You always work harder for someone you respect.”