New Democratic “Super PACs” Start Spending

April 25, 2011

It’s been a tough stretch for Republican Congressman Sean Duffy. A month ago, the prized recruit was embroiled in controversy after telling a town hall crowd back in Wisconsin’s Seventh District that he was “struggling” to pay his bills on his $174,000 representative’s salary. (Median household income in WI-7: $39,000.) Upon returning home for Congress’s two-week Easter recess, Duffy faced constituents angry about his support for Paul Ryan’s budget. On top of that, he’s a target of a new radio ad blasting him for backing a proposal that “protects billions in subsidies for big oil and cuts taxes by trillions for the wealthiest Americans and big corporations. That’ll just make the deficit worse.” The 60-second spot, scored by sounds of a snorting pig, lambasts Duffy for voting to “end Medicare as we know it.”

Duffy is one of 10 Republican freshman in the crosshairs of the new campaign, launched last week by House Majority PAC, a Democratic group dedicated to retaking the House. The group, helmed by Hill veteran Alixandria Lapp, is one of several formed recently to combat the edge in outside money that Republicans enjoyed during the 2010 cycle. Among the others are the Majority PAC, which will focus on defending the Democrats’ slim advantage in the Senate; American Bridge 21st Century, founded by Media Matters’ David Brock and devoted to opposition research; and a group led by former White House aides Bill Burton and Sean Sweeney, geared toward Obama’s re-election. “A lot of folks realized we were getting shellacked,” says a Democratic source involved with one of these groups. “We needed to immediately get something together to try to compete.”

Together they intend to shell out some $200 million through 2012. These outside groups will operate independently from the party’s traditional fund-raising arms like the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which unveiled a much smaller campaign targeting 25 Republicans for voting to “end Medicare.”

House Majority PAC, which according to a source familiar with the buy dropped more than $100,000 to place ads in the 10 districts, is an independent-expenditure committee; its contributors are disclosed to the FEC, but are unconstrained by donation limits. At least two others — American Bridge and Majority PAC — will be affiliated with nonprofit groups that won’t have to disclose its donors, the same fundraising model Democrats decried last year. Noting that dissonance, Jonathan Collegio, a spokesman for American Crossroads, blasted the Democrats for “hypocrisy.”

The new effort by Democratic veterans is designed to erase the edge the GOP enjoyed in 2010 thanks to groups like American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS, which raised $71 million for Republican candidates and hope to rake in nearly twice that this time around. With the GOP gearing up for a bigger outside push in 2012, Democrats felt they had no choice but to adapt in the wake of the Citizens United ruling. “Karl Rove and those groups deserve all the credit in the world for having such an impact,” says the Democratic source. “It’s very easy to sit back on the sidelines and complain about Karl Rove and the Koch brothers. But politics is a combat sport and we have to get in the arena.”

Which is why Republicans in swing districts — including Florida’s Allen West, Chip Cravaack of Minnesota, New York’s Ann Marie Buerkle and Charlie Bass of New Hampshire — returned home last week to spots questioning their position on Medicare, an issue the Democrats believe will propel them to victory next fall. As for Sean Duffy, ads assailing his budget vote aren’t his only problem. He’s just drawn a Democratic opponent for 2012 too.