How To Oust A Congressman, SuperPAC-Style : It's All Politics Think superPACs were a waste of wealthy donors' money this election season? Consider how New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's superPAC was able to help engineer an upset in one congressional race outside Los Angeles.
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How To Oust A Congressman, SuperPAC-Style

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How To Oust A Congressman, SuperPAC-Style

How To Oust A Congressman, SuperPAC-Style

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Hurricane Sandy is presenting funding challenges here in Washington, as well. The Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA, says the National Flood Insurance Program is looking at an estimated six to $12 billion in claims from Sandy. But the agency is also still carrying close to $18 billion of debt from the cleanup after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. It now needs to turn to Congress to get permission to borrow more.


Many of the bills for this past election were paid by wealthy individual donors. Many superPACs and other outside groups they funded appear to have little to show for the millions of dollars spent in the presidential and Senate campaigns, especially on the Republican side. But it's too soon to write off the superPACs as a waste of wealthy donors' money. NPR's Peter Overby has this look at an upset in a congressional race outside Los Angeles.

PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: Democratic congressman Joe Baca was first elected in 1999 in what's called the Inland Empire, counties east of Los Angeles. This year, he wasn't a shoo-in. His district had changed, and thanks to California's new election laws, he was facing another Democrat, State Senator Gloria Negrete McLeod. But late in the race, Baca seemed to be in the lead, with three times as much money as Negrete McLeod. Then came this...


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: In the Inland Empire, an important congressional race and a choice. In Congress, Joe Baca sided with polluters, voting for a dirty water bill while we have toxins in our water. For Congress, Gloria Negrete McLeod: on our side.

OVERBY: The TV ad covered Los Angeles airwaves, something the candidates couldn't afford to do. It had come from a superPAC 2,800 miles away.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Independence USA PAC is responsible for the content of this...

OVERBY: A superPAC funded by New York City's mayor, billionaire Michael Bloomberg. The congressman lashed back.


REPRESENTATIVE JOE BACA: This is gutter politics at its worst.

OVERBY: Baca held a press conference on the busy street in front of his headquarters. It was just four days before the election. Early voting was already well under way.


BACA: Mayor Bloomberg has never been to our communities, and he wants to dictate who will represent us in Congress.

OVERBY: Bloomberg is an independent centrist, not a Democrat or a Republican. His third term as mayor is running down. And as he turns to national politics, his core issues are education reform, marriage equality and gun control. Just two and a half weeks before Election Day, he launched the superPAC.

HOWARD WOLFSON: You have to identify the right race and the right set of circumstances.

OVERBY: Howard Wolfson described what the right race and the right circumstances would look like. He's a long-time aide to Bloomberg, and he guided the superPAC. The first thing they wanted for the "right race"...

WOLFSON: There was a clear contrast between the candidates on an issue of real concern.

OVERBY: That would be guns, among other issues. Baca's a blue dog Democrat. Wolfson said he had gotten high ratings from the National Rifle Association. Another measure of the "right race": it wouldn't be on everybody's radar.

WOLFSON: We deliberately chose a race that had not been targeted by others. We didn't want to be in the middle of a crowded field. We wanted to stand out.

OVERBY: And if the race was a sleeper without much outside money, then there probably wouldn't be much inside money, either. And that meant...

WOLFSON: We would have a big impact, based on our ability to go on television versus the candidates' inability to go on television, from a financial standpoint.

OVERBY: Besides the high-priced TV, Independence USA PAC mailed fliers across the district. They were about guns. Joe Baca is failing to keep us safe, they said. Joe Baca is not on our side. The superPAC spent about $3.3 million, nearly three times as much as both candidates combined. On Election Day, Negrete McLeod beat Baca with 56 percent of the vote.

DAN ERNSTEIN: There's probably one man in America in this campaign who cared about gun control, and it's Mayor Bloomberg.

OVERBY: This is Dan Bernstein, a columnist for the Press Enterprise newspapers in the Inland Empire. He was doing morning-after analysis on a TV show produced by the paper.

ERNSTEIN: Here he comes with, I call it Hurricane Bloomberg, $3 million, to basically turn a race upside down.

OVERBY: Not all of the Bloomberg superPAC picks turned out so well. Wolfson says they had four wins and three losses overall. They spent more than $8 million. But Professor Jessica Levinson, who follows campaign finance issues at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, says this race was a textbook example of how superPACs are changing American elections.

JESSICA LEVINSON: Those who fear superPACs look at this and say this swung the election. This is exactly what we were worried about.

OVERBY: It's also something that other political strategists can study for 2014. Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.

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