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All those campaign ads and cash? Just wait until 2012.
The next election will bring an explosion of political money — perhaps hundreds of millions more than ever before — without effective spending limits, a fundraising bar raised sky high by Barack Obama in his presidential campaign in 2008 and multimillion-dollar fuel added by Republican outside groups this year.
The $5.3 billion spent in 2008 and $4 billion anticipated tab this year? A hint of things to come.
Republicans considering running for president are preparing to sidestep the federal public financing system, eager to follow the example Obama set in 2008 when he raised nearly three quarters of a billion dollars for his presidential bid.
“The public financing system is going to look like a relic by the time we get to 2012,” said Kevin Madden, a senior adviser to Mitt Romney’s 2008 Republican presidential bid and informal adviser to Romney’s political action committee as the former Massachusetts governor weighs a new White House run.
Every presidential election in recent history has set new spending records, as candidates, big donors and party strategists find new ways to bypass the post-Watergate laws that imposed restrictions on money and politics and the 2002 law that banned unlimited millionaire, corporate and labor contributions to the national parties.
The decision to abandon public financing in presidential elections and recent Supreme Court rulings, particularly the Citizens United case early this year that gave unions and corporations a greater voice in politics, will push the boundaries further.
The stakes will be even higher in 2012 as Republicans seek to gain control of the Senate and keep their newfound House majority. Twenty-one Senate Democrats and two Democratic-leaning independents are up for election, compared to only 10 Republicans. And a slow economic recovery could keep Obama pinned down as he works to get re-elected.
It’s a recipe for explosive spending.
“The left will be looking for a competitive advantage to preserve the president and the White House and a Democratic majority, and the right will be looking to expand their power in Washington,” said Jay Dunn, a former finance director for the Democratic National Committee and fundraiser for the presidential campaigns of John Kerry and Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Stung by the Republican takeover of the House and gains in the Senate, Democrats already are considering how to rebuild a structure of outside groups that Obama himself discouraged in 2008 and which he decried when used by Republicans in 2010.
Next week, about 150 high-dollar liberal donors will assemble in Washington for a meeting of the Democracy Alliance, a five-year old group set up to advance liberal causes.
The success of Republican-allied groups “is certainly going to be on the table as one of the major conversation points,” said Rob McKay, a California venture capitalist and chairman of the alliance.
The $3 billion already spent in the 2010 federal elections — and the potential final tab of $4 billion — are record-shattering sums for a midterm election. The campaign saw outside groups such as American Crossroads and Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies, inspired by top GOP operatives such as Karl Rove, become the new archetypes for independent spending. Several of the groups operated as tax-exempt nonprofits that do not have to disclose their donors.
They combined the fervor of a bottom-up tea party movement and the resources of motivated deep-pocketed donors and corporations. And they provided a test case for the new court rulings — an effect that is hard to gauge in precise dollars because the contributors to many of the groups remain hidden.
Democrats had established the outside group model in 2004 and 2006, using independent organizations to complement party and candidate spending. Crossroads, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and other GOP-allied groups placed the Democratic idea on steroids, coordinating their strategies and airing millions of dollars in ads against Democrats.
Obama in 2008 dissuaded Democratic outside groups from assisting his campaign and this year attacked the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Crossroads and similar Republican-leaning organizations for mounting attacks on Democrats and not revealing their financial contributors.
But McKay said Obama and his strategists “are well aware of the role of outside money and the impact it had on this cycle, and they know that they’re going to be, as opposed to the indirect target of it in 2010, they’re going to be the direct target of in 2012.”
“There’s clearly a role, as evidenced by what happened Tuesday and what we were able to do in previous cycles, for our reaching out very specifically to key constituencies,” he said.
Democrats are also hoping for some earlier intervention next time.
In the 2010 election, Republicans pounced early. The National Republican Congressional Committee spent nearly $10 million in September on ads against House Democrats in contested races. Meanwhile, GOP-allied outside groups weighed in as well. The Crossroads groups put up $8 million in ads in September. And the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, with ads mostly critical of Democrats, spent $15 million on air time.
“We all believed pretty strongly that if this was a true wave election, the concrete would set up earlier,” said Wes Anderson, a GOP consultant who worked with the NRCC.
Democrats chose to wait. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spent only $3.5 million on ads during September. And the traditional Democratic allies — unions and liberal groups — were virtually silent.
The ad wars kicked into gear in October, but the Democrats saved their fire power for the end.
From Oct. 13, the DCCC spent $41 million, nearly twice the $23 million the NRCC put up in ads. But the GOP-allied groups — including the Crossroads organizations and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce — kept up their spending and put pressure on House Democratic candidates who had once been considered relatively safe.
“By expanding the playing field we also stretched this defensive perimeter that the Democrats were trying to establish to the breaking point,” said Steven Law, the president of Crossroads.
Several Democratic strategists say the final flow of Democratic spending was too late.
“A lot of money at the end is sort like funding a wellness program when the patient is in triage,” said Craig Varoga, a consultant who ran Patriot Majority, a Democratic outside group that spent nearly $2 million in Nevada against Republican Sharron Angle’s bid to unseat Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
“A longer and sustained effort would have been helpful and is clearly, absolutely necessary for all efforts going into 2012,” he said.
Copyright © 2010 The Associated Press