The spending landscape in the 2012 election was dominated by a few massive national Super PACs like Karl Rove’s American Crossroads, which acted as hubs for rich donors looking to back like-minded candidates. But things are shaping up differently this time around.
In recent months, a new breed of smaller, more targeted Super PACs has emerged—some supporting specific candidates, others pushing issues their founders care about. The sleeker spending vehicles represent the latest twist in the story of how the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling freed the mega-wealthy to pour unlimited sums into politics in support of their preferred candidates and causes.
A growing number of Democratic and Republican candidates for the most competitive 2014 Senate races are being supported by individual super PACs dedicated to one race. In Louisiana, for instance, a group of state and national operatives with ties to Democratic consultant Joe Trippi recently launched Blue Pelican, aimed at supporting Sen. Mary Landrieu, who faces a tough re-election fight.
At least three of the other most vulnerable Democratic incumbents—Sens. Kay Hagan of North Carolina, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, and Mark Begich of Alaska—likewise are backed by individual Super PACs. Several of Begich's Republican challengers have Super PACs supporting them. So too do Senat Minority leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, and his Democratic challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes.
These “boutique” Super PACs exist alongside more conventional national super PACs—like the Democrats’ Senate Majority PAC—that were set up in the 2012 cycle in support of the two parties’ efforts to control Congress. Senate Majority PAC acts like a mini version of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, taking in money from across the country and funneling it to the races it sees as most important. But superPACs can accept unlimited contributions, while national party groups like the DSCC are constrained by strict federal limits on how much they can accept from an individual donor.
For wealthy contributors, the appeal of the new smaller Super PACs is clear: They allow donors to support a specific candidate—often from their home state— rather than contributing to a general fund that will be disbursed by operatives in Washington.
“When someone contributes to Blue Pelican, they know that every dollar they contribute goes to the Louisiana race and isn’t siphoned off to other potential Senate campaigns,” said Ben Chao of Trippi & Associates, which helps run Blue Pelican.
On the GOP side, the growth in smaller Super PACs is also driven by frustration with the top-down approach that characterized 2012. That year Rove’s Crossroads, the billionaire Koch brothers' group Americans for Prosperty, and Restore our Future, a group started by Mitt Romney aides, spent nearly a quarter of a billion dollars between them in support of GOP candidates. (Meanwhile, Priorities USA Action spent over $65 million to back President Obama.) But Republicans emerged with almost nothing to show for their massive outside spending, with Rove receiving most of the criticism. That’s led many Republican donors, this time around, to see the wisdom of a more diffuse model.
Then there are the issue-based Super PACs. Tom Steyer, a billionaire retired investor, plans to spend as much as $100 million this year in support of candidates who support taking action on climate change, the New York Times recently reported. Last year Steyer spent $11 million backing Terry McAuliffe in his successful run for Virginia governor.
Mike Bloomberg, the billionaire former New York City mayor, has his own Super PAC, focused mostly on gun control. It suffered a setback in September when Colorado voters recalled two Democratic state senators and gun control supporters who were backed by Bloomberg.
And there’s the American Opportunity Alliance, which appears to be a hybrid of an issue-based Super PAC like Steyer’s or Bloomberg’s, and a conventional partisan player. Founded last year by the longtime top GOP donor Paul Singer, the group aims to help organize and co-ordinate Republican donations, but may also seek to move the GOP toward more liberal stances on gay rights and immigration, among other issues, according to Politico.
Of course, the billionaires who had the biggest impact on the 2012 race were those who acted as virtual one-man financing arms for individual presidential candidates: Sheldon Adelson for Newt Gingrich, and Foster Friess for Rick Santorum. And with GOP hopefuls already courting a select group of super-wealthy conservatives, that trend is likely to be even more in evidence in 2016, National Journal recently reported.
"Basically, if you can get an ideologically aligned rich person who believes in you ... and they want to be a player in politics, you can keep a campaign going as long as the guy's willing to write checks," Graham told the Beltway paper. "Which changes everything."
Of course, there are potential pitfalls, as well as benefits, for candidates that rely on Super PAC backing. Super PACs are barred by law from coordinating with candidates, meaning they might run ads that don’t jibe with a campaign’s message. And gaffes by major donors could turn into headaches for their chosen candidates. In 2012, Friess raised eyebrows when he told msnbc’s Andrea Mitchell that in order to avoid getting pregnant, women should hold an aspirin between their knees during sex.