Terry McAuliffe’s successful campaign for governor in Virginia might provide a playbook for fellow Democrats in 2014 — and a warning for Republicans.
Outside money makes a difference.
A really big difference.
Nominally independent committees, political action groups, environmentalists and unions poured almost $14 million into McAuliffe’s campaign. He went on to raise and spend almost $33 million to defeat Republican Ken Cuccinelli.
But money that didn’t go through McAuliffe’s campaign helped him just as much.
In the final month before the November election, allies aired an additional $3 million in television ads to help McAuliffe maintain his lead, according to the nonpartisan Virginia Public Access Project, which tracks political money.
What’s up for grabs in 2014? Try 435 seats in the House, one-third of the 100-member Senate and 36 governor’s offices.
Outside spending will play a pivotal, if not deciding, role.
This year’s elections will be the first when both parties fully embrace outside groups and their potential to accept unlimited contributions from supporters.
The usual players such as the National Republican Senatorial Campaign and the Democratic National Committee are expected to keep helping candidates. But other major groups on the outside also are now poised to influence the races.
—American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS. The partner organizations take their cues from strategists Karl Rove and Carl Forti, as well as former Republican National Committee heads Haley Barbour, Ed Gillespie and Mike Duncan. Considered the heaviest hitter among Republican outside groups, the two spent $176 million in 2012, mostly criticizing Democrats. Only donors for American Crossroads, a super political action committee, are disclosed.
—Americans for Prosperity. The chief outlet for libertarian billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch. The group helped the nascent tea party rise in 2010 and has spent heavily in support of libertarian-minded Republicans. Tax filings in Colorado from 2013 showed the group spent $122 million during 2012 but came up short in its bid to defeat President Barack Obama. Because of the way it is structured, it does not have to disclose its donors.
—Heritage Foundation. The longtime think tank on Capitol Hill has stepped up its political machinery since former Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., took over. The group’s political arm, Heritage Action, played an outsized role in October’s government shutdown, warning lawmakers who supported a compromise that there would be consequences. The 2014 elections will be the first ones with DeMint calling the shots.
—U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The biggest business coalition with deep pockets for Republicans. In 2012, the group spent almost $36 million to help GOP candidates and causes. The establishment-minded group has taken sides during some Republican primaries, coming to the aid of more mainstream candidates. It does not disclose its donors.
—America Rising. A research shop that is run by GOP operatives, including Mitt Romney’s campaign manager, Matt Rhoades, and RNC aides Joe Pounder and Tim Miller. The group and its affiliated consulting firm send staffers to track Democratic candidates with the goal of capturing their gaffes. The researchers also dig into Democrats’ histories. America Rising then shares information with fellow conservatives.
—FreedomWorks. Another Koch-backed operation, this one focused on mobilizing rank-and-file conservatives to support conservative Republicans running for office. The group trains grassroots activists to fight for lower taxes and less government and threatens Republicans if they break from party orthodoxy. It took its name from a group started by former House Republican Majority Leader Dick Armey of Texas, who is no longer part of the organization.
—Club for Growth. A take-no-prisoners enforcer for candidates who pledge to lower taxes. The well-funded group spent $17 million to help candidates, and punish defectors, in 2012 and has sketched out a strategy to go after incumbent Republicans who stray from the group’s line. Its current leader is former Pennsylvania Rep. Chris Chocola, who took over when Pat Toomey was elected to the Senate.
—Senate Conservatives Fund. Like Heritage and FreedomWorks, a thorn in the side of compromise-minded Republicans. The Senate Conservatives Fund is backing challengers to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, as well as Sens. Pat Roberts of Kansas and Thad Cochran of Mississippi. The group, founded by DeMint, has run ads against Republican Sens. Jeff Flake of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Johnny Isakson of Georgia and Richard Burr of North Carolina.
—American Bridge. The research-focused operation was a model for the GOP-friendly America Rising. When Republicans flub, there’s a good chance that someone from American Bridge is there to capture it and pass it along to reporters, Democratic campaigns and the Internet. The group, founded by former Bill Clinton critic-turned-liberal patron David Brock, has started an effort to defend Democrats’ potential 2016 candidates and to document prospective Republican rivals’ challenges.
—Priorities USA. Begun as a way for Democrats to counter the super PAC-savvy GOP in 2012’s presidential campaign and now shifting its focus to 2016. It spent $65 million to defeat Romney, aided by supporters such as movie mogul Jeffrey Katzenberg, director Steven Spielberg and comedian Bill Maher. The group, founded by former Obama White House aides, is in talks with former colleagues to consider becoming a de facto super PAC-in-waiting for Hillary Rodham Clinton, who may run for president in 2016.
—Independence USA. Ex-New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s political group is dedicated to defeating candidates who don’t support a crackdown on illegal weapons or back education improvements. Bloomberg spent $2.2 million in Virginia’s governor’s race alone to help McAuliffe defeat Cuccinelli. That’s a preview of the clout that Bloomberg could wield now that he’s just left office.
—Planned Parenthood. A reliably Democratic group that helps candidates who support abortion rights and dogs those who don’t. The group is powerful because it can introduce abortion rights into a race, forcing both candidates to make clear their positions, and often putting anti-abortion Republicans on the defensive. Led by Cecile Richards, a former top aide to House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California, the group has proved potent in using paid advertising and grass-roots organizing to fight politicians who would restrict abortion rights.
—EMILY’s List. Powerhouse organization that aims to help female pro-abortion rights candidates raise cash at all levels of government. It combines advertising, grass-roots organizing and voter data to help its chosen candidates compete. The group has been an early advocate for a female president, with its Madam President effort widely seen as an effort to prepare the way for a Hillary Clinton to run again for president.
—NextGen Climate Action. The project of Tom Steyer, a San Francisco billionaire investor who spent $2.4 million in television ads against Cuccinell. In all, NextGen spent almost $8 million in the Virginia race, including online ads, websites and mail to voters. Steyer has signaled he will continue to spend heavily to help candidates who pledge to work to curb climate change and has shown he will go beyond green topics if he needs to. In Virginia, his PAC ran an ad criticizing Cuccinelli’s position on abortion rights.
—House Majority PAC and Senate Majority PAC. Taken together, they represent one of the Democrats’ best shots at controlling both chambers. Run separately from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, they can accept unlimited contributions from people or companies looking to help Democrats. Already, Senate Majority has aired ads to help endangered Democratic Sens. Kay Hagan of North Carolina and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana.