PUBLIC PLAYBOOK

Where Republicans are using “dark money” to fight for their majority

Not so fast…
Not so fast…
Image: AP Photo/Julio Cortez
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The Democrats have energy and history on their side as they seek to win the House of Representatives during the midterm elections today. Republicans have the Congressional Leadership Fund (CLF).

This year’s poll is forecast to be the most expensive mid-term election in history, with $5.2 billion used to woo voters. As of Nov. 2, CLF has raised $144 million to support Republican candidates, the most among any outside groups participating in the elections. Affiliated with Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, CLF is the “official” SuperPAC of the party’s lawmakers, where their biggest donors give even more after hitting campaign finance limits with the party.

To maintain control of the House of Representatives, Republicans need to prevent Democrats from winning a total of 23 new seats. CLF has invested in 58 different races, a sign of the unusually large number of competitive districts this election cycle. If the election is being decided in your district, there’s a good chance your TV is full of CLF’s advertisements, and your door knob festooned with their hangers.

The effort is dedicated to off-setting Democrats’ fundraising advantage, driven by small donors who are angered by Trump. Though the Democrats’ party committee focused on the House has out-raised its Republican counter-part by nearly $76 million, tight races across the country may be a testament to CLF’s efforts.

Cash for votes

CLF has raised almost as much as House Republicans have at their party committee, which is kind of the point: CLF is a SuperPAC, a political organization created to exploit loopholes in campaign finance law, thanks to a 2010 Supreme Court ruling, Citizens United vs. FEC. SuperPACs can raise unlimited amounts of money, unlike parties and campaigns that face limits on the donations they accept.

CLF’s top ten contributors alone gave it more than $100 million. Casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson and his wife Miriam chipped in a cool $50 million; Timothy Mellon, the grandson of 19th century business magnate Andrew Mellon, gave $10 million; financier Charles Schwab and his wife gave $6.25 million; private equity mogul Stephen Schwarzman gave $3.75 million; and Chevron Oil chipped in $2.65 million.

One of the CLF’s biggest contributors is a non-profit organization called the American Action Network (AAN), which gave more than $26 million. AAN is founded and operated by the same people behind CLF. Because it is organized as a non-profit, it does not have to disclose who funds it, but it can take any donations and transfer them to CLF. Campaign finance reformers call this “dark money” because it hides the true source of the funds.

SuperPACs can spend their money turning out voters and airing political ads so long as they don’t coordinate with other political campaigns and committees. In practice, this is largely a charade for both parties; at one time, anonymous Twitter accounts were used to collaborate across the legal wall. SuperPAC  staff are often selected for their close relationships to party operatives; Corry Bliss, a veteran GOP campaign manager, is the executive director of both CLF and the American Action Network.

Ads for days

What would you do if you had more than $100 million to spend on influencing the election?

CLF is known among SuperPACs for investing in fieldwork—sending people door to door to talk to voters. The organization recently said that it had made 35 million voter contracts over the course the election cycle, one million coming in battleground districts.

But by far the bulk of its spending—more than $136 million—has gone towards producing and airing television ads like this one:

CLF gained unwanted attention earlier this year when one of its attack ads included confidential information about a former CIA agent running for office as a Democrat; the organization maintains that it received the information inadvertently during a routine records request.

An review of the independent expenditures reported to the FEC by CLF shows a fairly standard campaign strategy: Blanket a district with negative television ads about the Democratic candidate, while using canvassers and direct mail to drive up turn-out among Republican voters.

This proved effective in special elections over the last two years; the CLF’s biggest single investment was $13 million to defeat Jonathon Ossoff, a political newcomer running for an open Georgia House seat. Similar strategies helped hold off Democrats in other specials, but CLF’s resources are now being spread more thinly. That Georgia district is now considered a toss-up by political handicappers.

Target list

With election day upon us, we can see where Bliss and his team will be focused as the results come in tomorrow.

Excluding past special elections, CLF’s biggest investment is in an open seat, California’s 39th Congressional District, where Democrat Gil Cisneros is facing off against Republican nominee Young Kim. It’s not the only Orange County seat on their list: They are also spending big against Harley Rouda, the Democrat challenging Republican incumbent Dana Rohrabacher in the 49th district.

They’re also looking north of Los Angeles to California’s 25th district, where Democratic challenger Katie Hill is taking on incumbent Steve Knight. Knight’s race is one of only three that makes the top ten of both CLF’s negative spending and positive spending. The other two are Kansas’ second district and New York’s 22nd district. If you wanted to bet on Republicans pulling out wins in any three districts, it might be these.

But will all the money be enough? Even among the top targets, three of these seats are rated by forecasters as leaning toward the Democrat. The playing field is just too wide. As political analyst David Wasserman recently observed, Republicans will need to win 23 of the 30 thirty seats seen as too close to call in order to protect their majority in the House. Even the largest SuperPAC in mid-term history can’t change those odds.