How Democrats Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Super PACs

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Feb. 1 2014 2:07 PM

How Democrats Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Super PACs

The Democratic money machine is raking in the cash compared to their biggest GOP rivals.

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Hillary Clinton speaks at the National Automobile Dealers Association Convention on Jan. 27, 2014, in New Orleans.

Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images

Democrats are embracing super PACs—the independent political money groups they once derided—and are easily outpacing Republicans in the race for cash, according to the most recent campaign finance filings.

In 2013, the three highest-profile Democratic super PACs focused on congressional elections collectively raised more than $22 million—about four times more than their five mainstream GOP counterparts, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of new filings submitted to the Federal Election Commission. Republicans, meanwhile, are again facing an intraparty struggle as Tea Party–affiliated super PACs take aim at mainstream Republicans in primary battles.

Super PACs, which roared to life after the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision, differ from campaign committees and traditional political action committees because they can raise unlimited amounts of money from individuals, unions, and corporations. Liberals blasted the Citizens United decision and have scoffed at the groups it spawned. Still, super PACs are key to the Democrats’ plans for this year’s congressional elections.

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Senate in play

The Senate Majority PAC, which aims to help Democrats retain control of Congress’ upper chamber, raised $8.6 million in 2013, and the House Majority PAC raised $7.8 million.

Additionally, the Democratic-aligned American Bridge 21st Century super PAC—which specializes in opposition research, the type of information that often makes it into campaign ads as segments of damning video or audio—raised $5.9 million.

“Senate Majority PAC is necessary because we have to fight back against the Koch brothers and other conservative outside groups who are flooding millions of dollars into races trying to buy the Senate,” said spokesman Ty Matsdorf. “We can't fight with one arm tied behind our back.”

Billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch have spent millions backing conservative causes—the specter of their involvement this year has become an effective fundraising tool for the Democrats.

Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, an independent, ranked as Senate Majority PAC’s biggest backer last year, giving $2.5 million, while hedge fund executive Donald Sussman—the husband of Maine Rep. Chellie Pingree—was top donor to the House Majority PAC, at $850,000. Liberal billionaire George Soros, meanwhile, contributed $500,000 to American Bridge in December, earning him the top spot among that group’s 2013 donors. Several labor unions also pumped sizeable sums into the three groups’ coffers.

While Democratic-aligned groups are winning the fundraising race as of now, deep-pocketed donors can shift the scales overnight should they choose to pour new money into either super PACs or politically active nonprofits, the favored vehicles of the Kochs.

Poor showing for GOP

American Crossroads and the Conservative Victory Project, two super PACs connected to GOP strategist Karl Rove, each reported comparatively paltry receipts in 2013. American Crossroads, which was the top-spending super PAC during the 2010 midterm election, raised about $3.6 million in 2013. And the Conservative Victory Project raised just $16,500.

Two other GOP-aligned super PACs focused on helping the party retain control of the House—the Congressional Leadership Fund and the YG Action Fund—raised $1.1 million and $344,000, respectively. And a recently launched super PAC called America Rising, which specializes in opposition research, much like the Democrats’ American Bridge, raised about $478,000. One of its top donors was Restore Our Future, the super PAC that attempted to boost Republican Mitt Romney during the 2012 presidential race, that gave it $100,000.

Texas billionaire Harold Simmons, who died in December, ranked as the top giver to the Congressional Leadership Fund, at $200,000. His company, Contran Corp., ranked as the No. 1 donor to American Crossroads last year, having contributed $1 million.

American Crossroads spokesman Jonathan Collegio vowed that his group would “make a big impact in the 2014 elections” and help “win a GOP majority in the Senate and help expand the majority in the House.”

First, though, the GOP establishment must survive an intraparty fight, where conservative hardliners—armed with their own super PACs and nonprofits—are pushing Republican candidates rightward and even angling for their preferred candidates to triumph over incumbents they dislike.

Groups such as the Club for Growth and Senate Conservatives Fund—which have tapped into the energy and pocketbooks of Tea Party and anti-tax activists—are looking to replace GOP senators who they deem insufficiently conservative.

Republicans vs. Republicans

The potential targets include Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

Club for Growth President Chris Chocola, a former Republican congressman from Indiana, has made it clear that his group is not afraid to go after incumbents. Club for Growth’s political machine, he said last year, “helps elect candidates who support limited government and free markets. Unfortunately, the two goals coincide less often than the Republican establishment cares to admit.”

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