Original Link: http://www.politico.com/news/stories/1110/44651.html
By JEANNE CUMMINGS
Barack Obama pushed them together. Old habits and secretive instincts nearly kept them apart.
But in the end, a cadre of big-money Republican outside groups worked together to spend millions to take down the Democratic House majority, carefully coordinating their ad buys and political messages through a series of regular meetings and phone calls aimed at picking off selected Democrats.
The groups – including familiar names like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and American Crossroads – shared their target lists and TV-time data to ensure vulnerable Democrats got the full brunt of GOP spending.
Republican groups had never coordinated like this before, participants said, and backed by millions in corporate cash and contributions by secret donors, they were able to wield outsized influence on the results Tuesday night. The joint efforts were designed to spread the damage to as many of the majority Democrats as possible, without wasting money by doubling-up in races where others were already playing.
The National Republican Congressional Committee, which could not legally coordinate with the outside groups, even took the extraordinary step of publicly revealing its own ad buy strategy.
This knowledge allowed the groups to go where the party committee didn’t have the resources to attack. That way, the outsiders could “see where the holes are and figure out who is filling what holes,” Bill Miller, the Chamber’s political director, told POLITICO.
“It was especially important not to overload districts. How bad can you kill Mary Jo Kilroy?” said Miller, referring to one particularly endangered Ohio Democrat. Kilroy did indeed lose on Tuesday with far less investment from the conservative groups – about $287,000 — than in other races.
The meetings between the 30 or so GOP groups eventually came to be known as the “Weaver Terrace” sessions – named after the street where Bush adviser Karl Rove lived earlier this year, and where he hosted the first meeting to discuss the joint strategy.
As the campaign heated up, informal telephone calls supplemented the regular gatherings hosted at the headquarters of American Crossroads, a group founded with Rove’s guidance, said Carl Forti, the group's political director. “There were definitely instances where folks would say, ‘I’m going up in the Pennsylvania race this week,’ and another would say, ‘OK, we’ll go in the next week,’ ” said Forti.
Republican Pat Toomey eventually won the Pennsylvania Senate seat.
In House districts where the Chamber didn’t engage or took on a diminished role, the American Action Network, a Crossroads affiliate; Americans for Job Security, a Virginia group backed by corporate interests, or any one of a handful of other GOP business groups would step in to replace the Chamber and keep the Democratic incumbents on the run.
The coordination between the Republican groups is perfectly legal – and in many ways was modeled after Democratic efforts in 2004 – although the Democrats disclosed their big donors and the Republicans have largely avoided that this cycle by organizing under tax codes that keep contributors' names secret. Republicans watched those coordinated efforts by Democrats jealously in 2006 and 2008, and vowed to replicate them this year -- an effort some view as a test run for 2012.
The results speak for themselves, as the groups played vital roles in dozens of races that were part of the GOP’s 60-seat takeover of the House Tuesday and helped Republicans make gains in the Senate. In total, Republican-leaning outside groups spent $187 million this cycle compared to just $90 million by Democratic groups, a two-to-one GOP advantage aimed at spreading the House map and putting Senate Democrats on the ropes.
But it almost didn’t happen.
Rove and Ed Gillespie, two former Bush advisers, had been prodding the party’s disparate activist groups to work together since the start of the year. But many of the groups were reluctant to bare their political strategies to anyone, even their own allies.
At an initial lunch over chicken pot pie at Rove’s home, participants generally agreed with the mission and some began outlining their 2010 strategies, but there was an air of skepticism about whether everyone would play fair and a reluctance to divulge too many specifics.
To change that dynamic, Crossroads in June decided to take a chance and reveal its playbook for retaking the Senate to the group, said Steven Law, president of American Crossroads.
It was a strategic decision that freed the other groups to concentrate on the House – a project the Chamber had already planned to take on. As each group exposed a little more of their plans or agreed to fill-in where needed, the effort began to move forward.
In more than one district, the coordinated attacks turned political campaigns largely into contests between business-backed, GOP outside groups and the Democratic incumbents -- with the Republican challengers often outgunned and overshadowed by them.
Executing the Game Plan
A POLITICO review of the spending patterns of the outside groups brings life to the coordinated effort.
After spending hundreds of thousands of dollars in each of 27 House races, the Chamber made more modest investments in five others – a potential hole that was quickly plugged by other groups.
In Indiana’s second district, where Democrat Rep. Joe Donnelly was fighting for his political career, the Chamber spent just $40,000. But the 60 Plus Association, a pro-senior group that doesn’t disclose donors but says it has more than 7 million backers and is advised by Forti’s firm, dropped nearly $400,000 in attack ads. Crossroads tossed in another $150,000.
Donnelly managed to hold on to his seat – after seeing a nearly $500,000 windfall of support come in from the National Association of Realtors,
In Illinois’ 14th District, Rep. Bill Foster was facing a little less than $100,000 in C ads until American Future Fund dropped nearly $200,000 of them. The Fund is an Iowa based group that also doesn’t disclose its donors but acknowledges it was launched with seed money from an Iowa ethanol and energy executive. Foster lost.
In Pennsylvania, the Republican groups called in multiple players to bombard a half-dozen House Democrats, including some facing significantly underfunded Republican opponents. In the quest to oust Democrat Chris Carney, 60 Plus and the Chamber combined to spend about $1 million. The 60 Plus Association teamed up with the Center for Individual Freedom, another group that doesn’t disclose donors, to shell incumbent Democrat Rep. Paul Kanjorski with more than $600,000 worth of ads.
The results: Carney and Kanjorski went down in defeat.
Although the Republicans worked in tandem, the loosely knit coalition never set restrictions on the role that each would play, which sometimes led to conservative groups working against each other’s interests.
In Maryland, for instance, the Chamber spent more than $400,000 trying to protect conservative Democrat Rep. Frank Kratovil, a Blue Dog ally, only to see its efforts blunted by nearly $200,000 in attacks financed by Concerned Taxpayers of America. Kratovil lost.
Similar dynamics were on display in South Carolina, where the Chamber stayed out of the re-election race of House Budget Chairman Rep. John Spratt while the conservative Club for Growth, an anti-earmarks group funded by individuals and corporations, pounded Spratt with more than $400,000 in attack ads and messages.
Spratt didn’t survive.
In Iowa, Cody Brown, the campaign manager for Republican House candidate Ben Lange, said his boss tapped into his $400,000 campaign account to run just two campaign ads for about three weeks in the entire campaign. Both were positive biographical ads about Lange’s small town, populist roots.
Meanwhile, his Democratic target, Rep. Bruce Braley, a trial lawyer, faced $250,000 of negative ads from the Chamber and nearly $2 million in attack ads paid for by American Future Fund, the Iowa group.
Braley made a big issue of the outsiders and managed to hang on.
Democrats get involved
In the summer, Democrats realized what the Republicans were up to, and many tried to sound the alarm. Labor unions, environmental groups, women’s groups and a small set of wealthy donors were called into action in August as House party leaders realized what was being amassed against them.
“If there is a flood coming, you need to strategically place sandbags,” said Cristina Uribe, a key strategist with America’s Families First Action Fund, a hastily created group backed by labor and liberal donors that planned to spend more than $10 million trying to protect the House majority.
But that effort was small change to their adversaries.
The Chamber, which set aside $75 million in undisclosed corporate donations for the political season, is listed by Center for Responsive Politics as the biggest of independent players, investing nearly $33 million in radio, television and direct mail advertising alone.
Directly behind the Chamber on the Center’s outside group ranking is the coalition of groups formed by Rove and Gillespie. They are: American Action Network, which spent $26 million; American Crossroads, which invested $21 million, and Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies, which sank $17 million into ads and turnout communications in a plan to obliterate the Democrats’ Senate and House majorities.
Although donors to the Crossroads affiliates are largely unknown, the founders made no secret of the fact that they intended to take advantage of the Supreme Court ruling and tap into the vast resources of corporate America to raise more than $50 million help Republicans retake the Congress.
While that sum alone was enough to make Democrats’ nervous, the Crossroads founders also set out a more ambitious goal: To bring together the disparate new and old GOP political players so they could coordinate their efforts and maximize the damage on the political battlefield.
In the past two election cycles, Republicans watched in envy as the Democrats’ outside allies in the labor, environmental and civil rights communities embraced a collaborative approach to politics.
President George W. Bush wasn’t interested in a robust and rambunctious group of outsiders playing hard during his term, and his operatives – including Rove – delivered the message.
After Democrats took full control Washington in 2008, Rove took a different approach, inviting a couple dozen GOP strategists from various, politically active groups to the initial brainstorming session on tackling the midterms.
As the guests assembled in his living room, Rove and Gillespie, a former Republican National Committee chairman, spoke about the importance of working together.
“The goal initially was to encourage the groups to be as transparent as possible about what their priorities and plans were,” said Law, who attended the event.
Participants generally agreed with the mission and some began outlining their 2010 strategies, but there was an air of skepticism about whether everyone would play fair and a reluctance to divulge too many specifics.
Rove and Gillespie continued to work the groups in subsequent meetings that eventually shifted to the Crossroads headquarters, as it was opened and attendance grew to include about 30 groups.
Although Rove and Gillespie emphasized that the donors they were soliciting for Crossroads – contributors who represented some the GOP’s biggest bankrollers – were insisting the conservative groups get their collective acts together, progress was slow.
In June, Law decided to “take the bull by its horns” and surprised some by laying out Crossroads political strategy during one of the regular conservative groups’ meetings.
“We had at that point identified eight or nine priority Senate races. I walked through the Senate races, discussed that we wanted to television and mail and phones and gave them a rough sense of when we might start to do that,” Law recalled. “I essentially gave our whole plan out, with the goal of encouraging others to do the same.”
Two months later, the NRCC made public the time it had reserved for television ads in targeted districts – information that often is kept close to the vest and cannot legally be shared with such groups as Crossroads.
The combined effect of those two acts and improved sharing among all the groups at the Crossroads meetings made it possible for others to better coordinate.
In an interview Monday, Miller said the unification of the disparate GOP activist groups was inevitable after the two-year battle with the Democrats over health care reform, Wall Street regulations, climate change, and its handling of economic recovery programs.
The Supreme Court decision earlier this year in Citizens United v. the Federal Election Committee, which cleared the way for corporate cash in campaigns, only expedited that process.
“They tried to divide and conquer and vilify anyone they didn’t conquer onto their side. Hopefully, the results today will show that it is not a good way to govern and encourage the private sector to at least have a dialogue about improving the economy and jobs,” said Miller.
“We aren’t rooting against the president. We want the economy to come back. It’s a question of whether we can now all get on the same page,” he added.
A Few Growing Pains
Rove and Gillespie had brought together groups that focused largely on tax, spend, deficit and corporate interests. Most social or single-issue groups were not initially given entre to the Weaver Terrace sessions.
However, the coalition was surprised to discover the Susan B. Anthony List, an anti-abortion group, enter the political fray with surprisingly strong firepower.
Marjorie Dannenfelser, the group’s president, was seeking to defeat Democrats who had initially opposed health reform in the House and then flipped when the final passage votes were taken.
Among her targets: Pennsylvania Rep. Kathy Dahlkemper. “The disappointment with her caving was most intense” because Dahlkemper was a pro-life Democratic woman, a rare breed in the House.
Susan B. Anthony responded by dropping about $300,000 in the race to remind voters of that vote change. The amount surprised the GOP business groups.
“If I had known the right-to-life groups were so mad at Dahlkemper, I wouldn’t have spent any money there,” said the Chamber’s Miller. “I would have let them take care of it.”
Dahlkemper lost her re-election bid.
Dannenfelser said she reached out to Gillespie about attending the Crossroads meetings, to which he readily agreed. “Once I arrived at the table, it was very clear that this was a new and better engine behind getting their people elected,” she said.