WASHINGTON — A year ago, two top Republican strategists sat down for lunch at the venerable Mayflower Hotel, five blocks from the White House, calculating how to exploit the voter anger they had seen erupt at Democratic town hall meetings that summer.
Today, the money-raising success of the GOP-allied attack led by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Karl Rove-inspired American Crossroads has stunned opponents and even its own architects. It's one big slice of the estimated $3.5 billion expected to be spent on this year's campaigning, a record for a midterm election.
Financed to a great degree by undisclosed donors — and helped by a new Supreme Court ruling — the deep-pocketed groups have become a dominant part of this election's narrative. They have reversed past pre-eminence by Democratic outside groups. And they have become a prototype for elections to come.
Their effort has been a major factor in the $264 million in spending so far in this election by outside groups — organizations separate from the political parties and candidates.
Rove, who was President George W. Bush's top political adviser, and the two Mayflower lunch partners — former GOP Chairman Ed Gillespie and Steven Law, a veteran of Capitol Hill and the Chamber of Commerce — worried that the Republican Party alone would be no match for President Barack Obama's superb fundraising.
"Clearly there was a tremendous amount of grass-roots energy building — a grass-roots prairie fire that was building in intensity," Law, now the Crossroads president, said in an interview. "We felt that one of the things we could do was pour gasoline on that."
If voters seemed angry, so was corporate America. Obama led Congress into passing health care and financial regulation overhauls and pushed for climate legislation, all of which angered the business community.
In the end, the advantage held by the GOP outside groups helped neutralize the financial edge enjoyed by the Democratic Party over the Republican Party. Together, they all have contributed to an explosion of concentrated political advertising — perhaps $1 billion worth — that rivals the annual ad spending on cereal by Kellogg's or on drugs by Viagra maker Pfizer Inc.
In the past few days, Democratic-leaning groups led by labor have begun to weigh in with their own money, anxious to match the GOP effort on the ground and on the air. Aided by more than $4 million from America's Families First Action Fund, a group gathering large donations to support House candidates, Democratic allies have managed to stay virtually even with Republican groups during the past six days, according to an Associated Press analysis of Federal Election Commission data.
The GOP plan Rove, Gillespie and Law designed was ambitious. It would require the various Republican constituencies to unite behind one economic message. The conservative movement's biggest donors would have to pony up for a midterm election with sums that would have to match or exceed their giving during presidential elections. And the groups would have to align their spending, selecting their targets and becoming almost a parallel Republican Party.
This election has emphasized the use of nonprofit, tax-exempt organizations in politics — a trend that is not new but has gained attention by the sheer size of the spending. The groups are not required to disclose their donors, adding an element of secrecy that Obama and Democrats have denounced.
The $264 million in outside group spending reported to the Federal Election Commission as of Tuesday already exceeds outside spending in the 2008 presidential year and is four times the outside spending seen for the 2006 midterms.
"It's a telltale sign that things have really shifted in a dramatic way this cycle," said Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks campaign money.