Meet the Super PAC Woman

September 18, 2014

By Abby Livingston

As the political ad wars rage on television sets from New England to Southern California, Democrats think they have their answer to the Koch brothers and Karl Rove: a mother of three sons from suburban Virginia.

Meet Alixandria Lapp, the executive director of a super PAC with the sole mission of electing as many House Democrats as possible.

At House Majority PAC, she oversees tens of millions of dollars in television advertising every fall. But Lapp’s place in Democratic politics goes beyond a single political organization.

Behind the scenes, the seasoned operative plays traffic cop among House races, wrangling the spectrum of Democratic groups to ensure they work together to get the best bang for their buck in the super PAC ad wars.

“[It’s] driven by the donors and their ruthless desire to have their money spent wisely, because I think there is a pervasive sense amongst everyone in the progressive world that we can never compete with the Koch brothers’ money,” Lapp said in a recent interview with CQ Roll Call in downtown Washington, D.C.

Even with their president in the White House and a budding cash advantage, Democrats assume they will be outspent in the midterms. So the party looks for ways around a dollar-for-dollar battle against Crossroads GPS, the Koch brothers and other conservative outside groups.

Lapp founded House Majority PAC in the spring of 2011, after House Democrats lost their gavel in a spectacular fashion. Redistricting left the party in a lurch for 2012 and this cycle looks tough too. House Democrats must pick up a net of 17 seats in the midterms to win control of that chamber — a scenario most operatives have completely written off in this political climate.

Despite this, Lapp argues there’s still a ”small community who care about the House.”

“We’re the only group that cares about 218,” she said of the number of seats it takes to control the House.

It’s the perfect niche for Lapp, 39, who is married to Democratic ad man John Lapp. Born in California, Lapp spent much of her childhood in Washington. After graduating from the University of Puget Sound, she cut her teeth in state politics and eventually became chief of staff to Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash.

Lapp served as deputy director at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s independent expenditure arm during Rahm Emanuel’s regime as chairman in the 2006 cycle. She left her lobbying job at Parven Pomper Strategies, now part of Akin Gump, to run the House Majority PAC.

“I couldn’t have done it without the support of people in the Democratic establishment,” she said. “But it’s not like there was a hiring committee.”

Denise Feriozzi, the political director at EMILY’s List, described Lapp as the “center of gravity” of a coalition that includes the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees; the Service Employees International Union; Center Forward; EMILY’s List; the Latino Victory Project; the National Education Association; Vote Vets; the League of Conservation Voters and the Sierra Club.

“I know we are better off when it comes to electing Democratic women to the House because of Ali Lapp,” Feriozzi said. “It’s night and day.”

Lapp is quick to portray her role as serving Democratic “allies.” Operative after operative gushed about her “gravitas” and “organizational skills.”

Her job is to keep an eye on the big picture, while pushing these groups to channel their resources toward candidates who support their causes.

Legally, these outside spending groups cannot coordinate with the DCCC, which works directly with members and candidates on strategy. So the committee will often announce plans to the press to show its hand, allowing operatives such as Lapp to move money around to adjust media plans.

If one interest group wants to support a specific candidate, Lapp encourages it to take ownership of the race and concentrate funds on that district’s media, polling and direct mail. For example, if Vote Vets and the LCV endorse the same candidate, she coordinates with those groups so they do not make concurrent television ad buys in the same week and leave the candidate in the dark later.

She can also spend her super PAC’s money to plug holes elsewhere on the media map, helping candidates who aren’t getting airtime support from these groups or the DCCC.

“I want [donors] to know they’re not giving us money to go do a poll, and then they’re giving another group money to go do the same poll,” Lapp said.

In the past few cycles, Democrats bought ads months ahead of their Republican counterparts at discounted rates. Republican groups have a history of eleventh-hour media buys, and Lapp said she anticipates the conservative cavalry to come in before Election Day.

That means that from now until Election Day, Lapp’s gig includes playing chess with television ad buys.

Lapp expressed cautious optimism about HMP’s fundraising. In her world, a donor can decide to cut a million dollar check — or not — on any given day. So HMP made $20 million worth of reservations over the spring and summer, without certainty of how much money it will raise by the fall.

She insists that if HMP pulls a buy, it’s a reflection of her group’s fundraising, rather than the candidate in question.

“If I were to scale back those points, it probably doesn’t mean that I don’t believe in [Florida House candidate] Gwen Graham, what it means is that fundraising isn’t going very well,” she said.

It’s a lot of money, especially because the House is decidedly not in play this November. So Lapp’s strategy is to best position the party for 2016, when operatives are bullish they will have a chance at the gavel.

When asked if her job was akin to Don Corleone running a Five Families meeting, she said she is not a “Godfather” fan.

“There are no cigars,” she added.