Groups Prep for a Pricey 2012 Presidential Campaign

2010 was a banner year but 2012 could be even more expensive.

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The record amounts of money spent in the 2010 midterm elections have been both praised as free speech at work and lambasted as a sign of the influence of special interests. But there is no doubt that non-party organizations wielded more power this year than in any prior midterm election. Their spending particularly favored Republicans, helping the GOP gain six seats in the Senate and 60 seats in the House, with five House races still undecided. Campaign finance data suggests that this outside funding boosted Republican competitiveness in dozens of districts. With the effects of this spending becoming clearer, both parties and their supporters are planning accordingly for 2012.

A recent report from the nonpartisan Campaign Finance Institute suggests that, while non-party spending did not dictate election outcomes this year, it put Democrats on the defensive. This money largely went towards independent expenditures and electioneering communications, two types of spending that include political communications like broadcast advertising, mailings, and canvassing. The data shows that, in the 11 most competitive Senate races, spending on these communications by outside Republican-aligned groups not only exceeded that of Democratic groups, but also more than offset any Democratic advantages in party spending. Conservative spending also exceeded that of liberal groups in 68 of the 81 most competitive House races. Altogether, the report suggests that the infusion of conservative money was a particular boon to otherwise poorly funded and little-known Republican challengers. [See photos from the campaign trail.]

Brendan Glavin, data manager at the Campaign Finance Institute, says that heavy spending in the tightest congressional races--even those races won by Democrats--ultimately worked to the Republicans' advantage. If not for the war chests amassed by and spent on behalf of Republicans in these districts, says Glavin, the margins of Democratic victory would have been wider. "On the Democratic side it forced them to compete more, spread their money out more," Glavin adds.

In recent elections, the left regularly led in non-party spending, with Democratic-allied groups dropping tens of millions of dollars more than Republican-allied groups in 2004, 2006, and 2008. This cycle, however, conservative groups spent $188.9 million, more than double liberals' $92.3 million. This shift is largely a result of a series of court decisions that loosened campaign finance laws, culminating in the Supreme Court's January decision in Citizens United vs. FEC, which freed corporations and unions to spend unlimited money advocating candidates' election or defeat. This year's top spenders spent almost exclusively on helping Republicans and opposing Democrats. American Crossroads and its affiliated nonprofit, Crossroads GPS, two groups founded with help from former Bush adviser Karl Rove and former RNC chairman Ed Gillespie, spent $38.7 million. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce laid out $32.9 million. And the American Action Network, a nonprofit organization founded by former Minnesota Sen. Norm Coleman, spent $23.9 million. 

Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesman Ryan Rudominer believes that such spending intensified what would already have been a lackluster election for Democrats. "The record amount of secret money spent by right-wing outside groups turned this political storm into a category-three political hurricane," he says.

Indeed, the post-election consensus seems to be that money acted as a megaphone in 2010, turning up the volume on particular candidates and exacerbating an anti-incumbent public mood. "Ultimately, campaigns and candidates win because of that campaign and that candidate," says Doug Heye, spokesman for the Republican National Committee. "But as their record receives more scrutiny, what they may have done positive for a district or a state, or plan to do, can be better-known."

With 2012 races on the horizon, Democrats and their allies appear ready to change strategies. While President Obama had in the past criticized the Citizens United decision, it appears that the need for Democratic resources in 2012 might drive the White House to change its position. Last week, White House senior adviser David Axelrod indicated in an interview with Politico that in the 2012 campaigns the White House would support more aggressive spending practices by Democrat-allied groups, as long as donors were disclosed.