GOP Feels The Influence Of Outside Money Groups

In this image provided by Crossroads GPS, an ad took aim at Democrat Joe Sestak in Pennsylvania's contest for the Senate in 2010. i i

In this image provided by Crossroads GPS, an ad took aim at Democrat Joe Sestak in Pennsylvania's contest for the Senate in 2010. Crossroads GPS/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Crossroads GPS/AP
In this image provided by Crossroads GPS, an ad took aim at Democrat Joe Sestak in Pennsylvania's contest for the Senate in 2010.

In this image provided by Crossroads GPS, an ad took aim at Democrat Joe Sestak in Pennsylvania's contest for the Senate in 2010.

Crossroads GPS/AP

Even as Republicans have made their presence felt this summer in Congress and on the presidential campaign trail, some party leaders have begun to feel their own control of Republican activism slipping away.

They sense that independent groups within the party and the broader conservative movement are gaining power, in part because they can raise money more easily than the party itself.

Those expressing concern are mostly Washington insiders, savvy about how political money flows and how the laws channel it here or there.

"I think this is the election cycle where we may see, really, the virtual death of the national party committees," says election law attorney Robert Kelner.

The McCain-Feingold law of 2002 made it illegal for the national parties to use unregulated, "soft" money. In practice, that means each party committee can only tap even its most generous donors for $30,800 per year.

"And so money flows to where it can be most easily raised and spent, which is outside the political party structure," Kelner says.

Donor Disclosure

Here's Exhibit A: The Republican National Committee, so far in 2011, has raised $37 million. That might sound like a lot, but just one of the outside money groups is spending $20 million this summer alone - on just one TV ad campaign.

Crossroads GPS/YouTube

One of the ads from Crossroads GPS' $20 million campaign this summer. In contrast, the Republican National Committee has raised $37 in 2011 thus far.

"We felt it was really important to place a big bet early," says Steven Law, president of the twin groups called American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS. "Our instinct was that the debt limit debate would be the defining issue of 2011, setting up the debate for fiscal and economic policies going into next year. "

In one of the ads from Crossroads GPS' campaign, a woman is shown worrying late at night about the economy. "I supported President Obama because he spoke so beautifully," she says. "But since then things have gone from bad to much worse."

Officially, Crossroads GPS is a social welfare organization, so it doesn't have to disclose its donors.

But if the ad were to be produced by American Crossroads - a political committee - then disclosure would be mandatory.

There are groups like these on the left, too, so Democrats may come to face similar issues about where the center of power lies.

That is, if they ever catch up in the outside money race. The Democrats came late to the game, after spending last year blasting the pro-Republican groups for their secrecy.

Advertising Onslaught

Phil Kerpen is vice president for policy at Americans For Prosperity, which helped to underwrite the Tea Party movement in 2009.

"Last cycle, the president of the United States attacked us by name at least 18 times by my count," Kerpen says.

He expects an advertising onslaught this year and next.

"Voters will be exposed to just about every message possible, and I think we'll have sort of a saturation," he says.

And that's not just for the general elections. FreedomWorks, another Tea Party powerhouse, helped to keep a long-time GOP senator from being re-nominated in Utah last year.

Now they're trying again, targeting Orrin Hatch in Utah, and Richard Lugar in Indiana. If that makes the National Republican Senatorial Committee spend money in the primaries instead of in the general election, FreedomWorks vice president Max Pappas says that's okay.

"FreedomWorks exists to promote freedom, and the NRSC exists to promote Republican incumbents from the Senate," he says.

Debt Ceiling Power Struggle

The debt limit fight helped to sharpen this tension between outside money groups and the party establishment.

Among those battling against a compromise was one of the oldest of the outside groups - the Club For Growth.

And most of the lawmakers who'd gotten the Club's endorsement, and gotten money from Club members, voted against the debt ceiling compromise brought forth by the House GOP leadership.

David Keating, the Club's executive director, says the party leaders should get used to it.

"I'm sure it's a headache for them," he says. "But we think it's a good headache to give them."

One way to cure this headache, both sides of the controversy agree, would be to do away with the remnants of the McCain-Feingold law, and let everyone raise money without limits.

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