Now that the first full presidential cycle to feature big spending Super PACs is in the books, some strategists and donors are openly wondering how much influence the groups can wield going forward.
Did millionaire and billionaire donors really get their money’s worth? And can Super PACs make the same argument for relevance next cycle—specifically that spending millions in the TV ad war can truly make a difference on the national level?
“There is probably no harder race for a Super PAC to have an impact than one where the candidate can raise and spend close to a billion dollars, as the presidential candidates did,” says Robert Lenhard, a campaign finance attorney at Covington & Burling and a former chairman of the Federal Election Commission. “The relative impact of a Super PAC can be far greater in a down-ticket race.”
And while major Super PACs on the national level still have to answer to some big name donors, many on the local level saw success in 2012. Take Real Jobs NC, a Super PAC that went 12-for-15 in the state level races it played in this election cycle.
Backed primarily by the Republican Governors Association and Republican State Leadership Committee, Real Jobs spent $401,545.37 supporting North Carolina Gov.-elect Pat McCrory. Republicans also won 3-out-of-5 state Senate races in North Carolina and 8-out-of-9 state House races where Real Jobs spent money.
Statewide, more than 85 percent of total outside group spending—most of it done by conservative organizations—went towards just 10 races, according to The Institute for Southern Studies. Republicans walked away with nine of them, lending credence to the claim that down-ballot races offer far more bang for a Super PAC’s buck.
Following this election’s results, Lenhard expects Super PAC donors to divide into two categories: those who have personal relationships with the candidates they fund and those who are ideologically or strategically driven. The latter group is growing more sophisticated in choosing which Super PACs to support, though the committees remain in their infancy.
Neil Reiff, a Democratic campaign finance attorney with the firm Sandler, Reiff, Young & Lamb, says a number of his clients were Super PAC success stories this election cycle. CREDO Super PAC launched an effort called “Take Down the Tea Party Ten” aimed at ousting Tea Party-backed House Republicans.
The Super PAC spent $2.7 million against Republicans this cycle, helping to topple GOP Reps. Allen West (Fla.), Joe Walsh (Ill.), Frank Guinta (N.H.) and Chip Cravaack (Minn.)—with Dan Lungren (Calif.) narrowly behind in the Sacramento contest that has yet to be decided. Another target, Michele Bachmann (Minn.), narrowly escaped with her seat.
Or take the Montana Hunters & Anglers Leadership Fund, which spent over $1.1 million against Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-Mont.) in order to preserve Sen. Jon Tester’s seat. A key part of the committee’s strategy included ads encouraging support for Tester, and libertarian candidate Dan Cox, in order to divert as many votes away from Rehberg as possible. According to Reiff, the strategy was a major success.
“You’ve got to find a niche,” he says. “You had a couple of bigger [Super PACs], especially on the Republican side, competing for the same message. Those PACs who dumped way too much money into the race—it became counterproductive.”
Reiff expects it will take a few months for political scientists and media analysts to sift through the data, anecdotal evidence and win-loss records to determine which Super PACs were impactful, but he doesn’t doubt they’re the best possible political tool for donors to spend their money.
If anything, Reiff says, Super PACs will refocus their efforts on the ground game in the future—funding canvassing, mailers, phone banks and other GOTV when TV becomes oversaturated.
Liberty for All—a Super PAC that backed a handful of libertarian-minded candidates this year—actively tried to fill in some of the tactical gaps it saw in the campaigns the group was supporting, according to Executive Director Preston Bates. In some cases, as with Kentucky Republican Thomas Massie’s primary effort, they practically ran the entire operation—spending $542,000 on broadcast and cable TV ads, $120,000 on direct mail and $30,000 on phones.
Bates says quantitative analysis is crucial when deciding how to spend a Super PAC’s money. Liberty for All looked at past election results and constructed polls to determine how people were consuming media in each race they played in.
“It makes sense doing direct voter contact at the door, as well as running positive advertising,” Bates says. “Regardless of what level they’re at, Super PACs have a role to play in providing contrast content.”
At the federal level, the Super PAC went 4-for-4 supporting the winning campaigns of Massie, Arizona Republican Jeff Flake, Rep. Justin Amash (Mich.) and Kerry Bentivolio. With $500,000 going a lot farther in a congressional primary than a U.S. Senate race, Bates says, he fully expects Super PACs focused on a small handful of races will continue to proliferate.
“There’s not really a monolithic story to be told with Super PACs; there are many shapes and many motivations,” says Neil Reiff. “But they’re here to stay. That’s the bottom line.”
Correction: This story originally reported that CREDO Super PAC spent $665,156 to oppose House Republicans. The group actually spent $2.7 million.