Super PAC founder, a Kent native, aims for Dem control of House

August 11, 2012

Alixandria “Ali” Lapp founded a super PAC to help reclaim a Democratic majority in the U.S. House of Representatives. Her House Majority PAC aims to raise millions from labor unions and individuals to pick up at least 25 of 63 seats Democrats lost in the 2010 midterm elections.

WASHINGTON — Alixandria “Ali” Lapp is a woman on a seemingly improbable mission: to wrest back Democratic control of the U.S. House of Representatives in November.

As executive director of House Majority PAC, Lapp is orchestrating the quest to regain at least 25 of 63 seats Democrats lost in the shellacking known as the 2010 midterm elections.

Her prospects are dim.

For instance, Intrade, the online betting market, pegs the likelihood of a power flip in the House at 15 percent.

But if Democrats ultimately do confound the oddsmakers, then Lapp, a University of Puget Sound graduate who grew up in Kent, can claim major credit.

Lapp’s House Majority PAC is one of hundreds of super PACs spawned since the 2010 Supreme Court ruling on Citizens United. It can raise unlimited sums from corporations and unions to directly help elect or defeat candidates — which under the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance law previously had been illegal.

Unlike party committees, super PACs also can accept earmarked money, attracting donors seeking to take out targeted opponents or support favored causes. Traditional PACs, by contrast, cannot accept more than $5,000 from individuals per year or any donations paid directly out of corporate or union treasuries.

In Washington state, House Majority PAC has reserved $800,000 in TV airtime for the fall. The money most likely will be spent in the 1st District contest between Democrat Suzan DelBene and Republican Snohomish County Councilmember John Koster — a tea-party favorite Lapp calls “the best candidate Democrats can hope for.”

Since Lapp founded it in April 2011, House Majority PAC has raised nearly $10 million, ranking it among the 10 largest super PACs. Much of its haul has come from labor unions — teachers, postal workers, Teamsters and others — as well as from wealthy individuals such as liberal billionaire George Soros.

Lapp’s super PAC evolved out of a smaller predecessor group, America’s Families First, founded by a group of Democratic strategists. America’s Families operated an affiliate “social welfare” organization that could legally accept anonymous donations.

House Majority PAC’s biggest donations, totaling $1.15 million, have come from Greenwich, Conn.-based hedge fund Paloma Partners and its politically connected founder, Donald Sussman.

GOP ahead, 4-to-1

Lapp makes no apologies for being part of the deluge of outside spending — $246 million and counting in this election season — that has made it harder for voters to distinguish between the agendas of candidates and those of their rich and sometimes anonymous donors.

“I can’t even allow myself the luxury of wondering” about a world without super PACs, Lapp said, sitting in a conference room of her Georgetown office.

So far, Republican groups have outspent Democrats in independent expenditures nearly 4-to-1, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks political spending. The largest super PAC — Restore Our Future, which is working to elect Mitt Romney president — alone has raised $82 million, or one-fourth of all money raised by super PACs.

Lapp argues Democrats have no choice but to play the outside-money game, however lopsided the contest. Her goal is to raise and spend $35 million by the end of this election. Lapp is focusing on four dozen races — including contests in California, New York and Illinois — where Democrats have the best chances of picking up seats Nov. 6.

“We just can’t tie our hands behind our backs and watch it all happen,” she said.

Yet that’s exactly what former U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin advises.

Feingold, a Democrat, along with Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, authored the 2002 law that banned political parties from taking “soft money,” or donations that skirted federal contribution limits. The Citizens United ruling overturned a part of McCain-Feingold — and paved the way for super PACs that Feingold calls “vehicles of corruption.”

Since losing his re-election bid in 2010, Feingold founded the political-action committee Progressives United to counter the growing sway of interest groups, particularly corporations, in politics.

Feingold says it’s futile for Democrats to attempt to keep up with Republican donors who are bankrolling campaigns, sometimes through tax-exempt social-welfare advocacy groups such as Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS that do not have to disclose contributors.

Even retaking Democratic control of the House, Feingold said, doesn’t justify playing by rules that he believes all but invite undue influence.

Progressives United operates a traditional PAC and a separate social-welfare-advocacy group. It has a self-imposed ban on money from corporations, unions, lobbyists and federal contractors, and says it discloses every donor’s name.

“Democrats should completely stay away from super PACs,” Feingold said.

Political operative

Lapp, 37, is a friendly, brisk-talking mother of two boys, 1 and 3, and an 8-year-old stepson. She also is a veteran political operative steeped in partisan combat.

She’s married to John Lapp, an adviser to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC). Her first husband, David Wade, is chief of staff for Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts. Ali Lapp previously worked for the DCCC under Rahm Emanuel, President Obama’s former chief of staff and now the mayor of Chicago.

Lapp and her younger brother grew up in a Democratic, if not particularly political, family.

While attending the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Lapp volunteered for Adam Smith’s re-election campaign for the Washington state Senate. Just months after graduating in 1996, she followed the Tacoma Democrat to the U.S. House, eventually rising to become Smith’s chief of staff.

Lapp is an expert in the strategy of independent expenditures. With her super PAC barred by law from coordinating with candidates’ campaigns or party committees, she works with consultants to pinpoint how, when and where to target her spending.

Lapp knows how to stretch her advertising dollars by pooling money with interested labor unions or when to reserve time so a 30-second television campaign costs $400,000 instead of $600,000.

This spring, House Majority PAC helped knock out the Republican hopeful in the special election to fill the seat vacated by Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who survived a gunshot to the head in a mass shooting in Tucson, Ariz., last year. The super PAC aired its own TV ads to supplement those from the DCCC.

One devastating spot by the super PAC resurrected a remark by the Republican, Jesse Kelly, during his 2010 congressional race, when he attacked Giffords for pretending to be a hometown hero when “she’s a hero of nothing.”

Lapp is in full battle mode. And in her world, super PACs are serving a just cause.

“We are out there fighting for better democracy every day,” she said.