Democrats Form SuperPACS For 2012

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Democrats railed against big-money political advertising groups in 2010. Now, they're forming their own network of such groups for 2012.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Ever since congressional Democrats lost big in last year's midterm elections, an important question has been hanging over the party: Will they imitate American Crossroads, American Action Network and other conservative groups whose attack ads helped give Republicans their House majority? The answer now is yes. Democratic consultants are busy setting up a network of their own.

And as NPR's Peter Overby reports, they'll be soliciting contributions much bigger than the legal limit for the candidates themselves.

PETER OVERBY: Democratic operative Chris Harris says his side was amazed last year.

Mr. CHRIS HARRIS (Democratic Strategist): Just amazed by how much Republican groups spent and how ill-prepared our side was.

OVERBY: American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS spent $39 million. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce spent 33 million; American Action Network, 26 million. That's well more than double the spending of the top three labor unions.

Mr. HARRIS: We sort of just sat on our hands and complained about it. And we all know that going forward we cannot do that again.

OVERBY: So here's the liberals' plan: Four groups not connected to the candidates or the Democratic Party, one group each for the House, Senate and presidential races, and group number four, called American Bridge 21st Century, founded by progressive media watchdog David Brock. Its mission is to set up a war room and, says Harris, do opposition research for the other groups.

Mr. HARRIS: You know, like different players on a baseball team.

OVERBY: A couple of things get thrown overboard in the plan for these new groups: contribution limits and sometimes even disclosure. Most of these new groups are Super PACs, the product of a low-profile circuit court ruling last spring.

SuperPACs have to disclosure their donors, but they get to ignore the federal contribution limits. And thanks to the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, they can take money from corporations and unions.

As the liberal network takes shape, it also includes a few 501(c) tax-exempt organizations. The thing about 501(c)s is they don't have any contribution limits or disclosure requirements. So this is a race for serious money.

Mr. J.B. POERSCH (Majority PAC): There are some early signs that Democrats are going to be able to have the resources they need in order to be successful.

OVERBY: That's J.B. Poersch, head of the new Senate campaign group Majority PAC. He won't say they'll match the GOP outside money groups dollar for dollar.

Mr. POERSCH: There are some special interests that Republicans have access to that we don't.

OVERBY: At the new House Majority PAC, Alixandria Lapp says that in 2010 House races, the conservative groups spent $21 million dollars, while...

Ms. ALIXANDRIA LAPP (House Majority PAC): The organization that preceded ours spent $6 million. So that's a pretty big gap. Our goal really is to just narrow that gap.

OVERBY: Last week, the House Majority PAC went on the radio in 10 congressional districts. This ad targets Republican freshman Ann Marie Buerkle of western New York. Last fall, her winning margin was barely 500 votes.

(Soundbite of advertisement)

Unidentified Man: Buerkle's plan threatens to end Medicare as we know it. That's right, end Medicare as we know it.

OVERBY: There's still another group in the works for the presidential campaign. It's going to be headed by two veterans of the Obama White House: former West Wing aides Sean Sweeney and Bill Burton.

A strategist close to the planning says their first goal will be responding to Republican attacks as the Obama campaign ramps up. Political scientist John Geer of Vanderbilt University calls this a brave new world of politics as the outside money groups are set to flourish in both parties.

Professor JOHN GEER (Department of Political Science, Vanderbilt University): There are going to be a lot of outlandish ads out there. These third-party groups are not constrained by accountability in the same sense that the candidates are because their names are not on the ballot.

OVERBY: Even as Democratic consultants file registration papers for the new groups, President Obama and others in the party are looking at ways to outlaw them.

Jonathan Collegio is with American Crossroads, and he's enjoying the irony.

Mr. JONATHAN COLLEGIO (Communications Director, American Crossroads): Now that both sides are doing it, it looks like both sides are going to do it with roughly equal efforts. It will be harder to politicize it.

OVERBY: Not that logic of that sort will stop anyone from trying.

Peter Overby, NPR News Washington.

(Soundbite of music)

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

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