Democrat Kathy Hochul was elected to Congress on Tuesday in western New York's 26th District. She will replace a two-term Republican who resigned amid scandal. Outside money groups filled the airwaves in the 26th District with negative advertising as they prepare for big-budget campaigns in the 2012 elections.
These outside money groups are separate from the national parties — never mind that they're run by former party operatives. They are also untethered from contribution limits when they raise money.
In the district this spring, noncandidate spending totaled $2.25 million. The outside money groups easily overshadowed the national party committees.
Eighty-seven percent of the spending was negative. Pro-Republican groups pounded Hochul; pro-Democratic groups hammered Republican Jane Corwin. Both sides whaled away at Tea Party candidate Jack Davis.
Outside groups have spent nearly $2.3 million in New York's 26th Congressional District race. Below, a breakdown of the money, by group. (Note: Numbers are rounded)
American Crossroads: $690,366
National Republican Congressional Committee: $424,678
U.S. Chamber of Commerce: $100,000
American Action Network: $94,694
National Right to Life Committee: $22,046
Independent Women's Voice: $14,250
National Rifle Association: $7,392
American Conservative Strikeforce PAC: $3,700
House Majority PAC: $371,252
Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee: $266,750
Communications Workers of America, Working Voices: $186,500
Service Employees International Union, Local 1199: $75,000
National Committee to Protect Social Security: $10,673
Working Families Party: $4,350
Planned Parenthood Action Fund: $2,060
Source: Sunlight Foundation, from Federal Election Commission data
"This is the first contest of 2012, and it's drawing a lot of interest from a lot of those players who are going to be key as we go through the 2012 election season," said Bill Allison, editorial director at the Sunlight Foundation, which tracked that outside money.
That meant the groups used the 26th District to update their tactics.
Take American Crossroads, a conservative powerhouse in the 2010 campaigns. Its spokesman, Jonathan Collegio, said that even in this staunchly Republican district, this special election wouldn't be a repeat of 2010 "when any Republican — anybody with an R next to their name and a pulse — could have won an election.
"That same kind of environment does not exist right now, and it won't exist in 2012," Collegio said.
So American Crossroads tried to sidestep the negative effects of the House Republicans' proposal to change Medicare. In its final ad of the campaign, it gave the election a local spin.
Campaigns nowadays are also about technology, as Collegio noted.
"We engaged in some targeted Web advertising by ZIP code that we're experimenting with, and the results of those tactics will be seen once we get all the metrics back after the election," he said.
Another pro-Republican group, American Action Network, augmented its traditional ground-war efforts Monday by spending $2,000 for a Facebook ad.
As for Democrats, in 2010 they attacked the pro-Republican groups as conduits for corrupt big contributions. That didn't work. So, Democratic operatives now have three outside money groups of their own, including House Majority PAC.
"Once we got on the air in each of the media ads, we actually matched Crossroads dollar for dollar," said Alixandria Lapp, the group's director.
In its final ad, House Majority PAC hit Republican Corwin on national, not local issues — and not just Medicare.
To Allison, at the Sunlight Foundation, this looks much like the so-called soft-money era of the 1990s, when the national party committees solicited seven-figure checks from corporations, unions and the wealthy.
"It's just that it's not going to the political parties," he said. "It's going to these outside groups that are run by people who used to run the political parties."
The 1990s soft money was outlawed by the McCain-Feingold law. No such legislation is in the offing this year, and some of the outside money groups are building budgets in excess of $100 million.