Democrats Plan Financial Comeback For 2012

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The flow of money in the midterm elections is still being analyzed — especially money that came from outside groups. But it's clear that organizations supporting Republicans outspent Democrats. Democrats hope to respond by the next election.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

The massive flow of money in the midterm elections is still being analyzed, especially money that came from outside groups. But it's already clear that organizations supporting Republicans outspent Democrats on TV ads by a two-to-one margin.

Now, as NPR's Peter Overby reports, progressive organizers are starting to plan a financial comeback for Democrats in 2012.

PETER OVERBY: The American Action Network, American Crossroads, Americans for Job Security, those were among the top spenders among the outside money groups that flooded the airwaves with attack ads. They were all backing Republican candidates. And on the left...

Mr. STEVE ROSENTHAL (Democratic Strategist): The Democratic side got caught a little flatfooted on this.

OVERBY: That's Steve Rosenthal, a long-time liberal strategist, who's been in the middle of meetings, conferences and generalized hand-wringing as the left tries to figure out what to do next.

Mr. ROSENTHAL: People across the Democratic community are beginning to feel as though it's going to be necessary in 2012 for us to have a vehicle, a large vehicle to combat what the Republicans are doing and to make sure that a progressive message is put out there in a consistent way.

OVERBY: When Rosenthal says vehicle, he means a vehicle for raising big contributions. Contributions much too large to be legal if they were raised for a candidate or party committee, but legal when solicited by somebody else who can transform them into TV ads in battleground markets.

Ms. KATHLEEN KENNEDY TOWNSEND (American Bridge): We've got commitments of about $4 million.

OVERBY: That's Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, who's lending her efforts and her family name to just such a vehicle - American Bridge. That name, American Bridge, echoes the traveling man imagery of American Crossroads, the big spending group linked to Republican consultant Karl Rove. The founder of American Bridge is David Brock, head of the liberal media watchdog Media Matters for America. Kathleen Townsend says they hope to be airing TV ads within six months.

Ms. TOWNSEND: We need to get our message out, and we need to get it out soon, and we need to get it out tough and hard.

OVERBY: Get the message out soon, tough and hard. That sums up why liberals and conservatives, for that matter, don't expect the 2012 campaign to wait for 2012.

Mr. GREG SPEED (Director, America Votes): Look at the way the right responded after 2008, those activities were very much geared towards an election year message.

OVERBY: Greg Speed is director of an established but low-visibility liberal organization called America Votes. He's talking about ads that ran more than a year ago attacking President Obama and the Democrats on one issue after another. They set the table for the traditional campaign season. The left came close to that strategy in a handful of states. Craig Varoga is head of Patriot Majority, a union-backed group that promoted Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in Nevada.

Mr. CRAIG VAROGA (President, Patriot Majority): We were working in Nevada for 12 months. And we were on TV for six months, but we had, you know, many allies and many, you know, members of a very large coalition that we worked with on the ground.

OVERBY: But most liberal groups were late to the game. America's Families First Action Fund raised over $4 million. The group's spokeswoman is Ramona Oliver.

Ms. RAMONA OLIVER (Spokeswoman, America's Families First Action Fund): America's Families First Action Fund was really created and got started in the fall.

OVERBY: So when they went on the air to help endangered Democrats in the House, it was too little too late.

Ms. OLIVER: Now, we have the opportunity to really work much further in advance.

OVERBY: There's one other problem for liberals. They've been attacking the other side for taking advantage of court rulings and concealing conservative donors from disclosure. So how can they start soliciting secret money for themselves? Again, Steve Rosenthal.

Mr. ROSENTHAL: The entire system clearly needs to be reformed. But as long as these are the rules, we would be foolish to let the other side take advantage.

OVERBY: An alternative, of course, would be for the Senate to pass a disclosure bill. But Democrats tried that twice and failed. And passage before Congress adjourned is looking more and more like a long shot.

Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.

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