If You Don’t Beat ‘Em, Join ‘Em?

NYT, LAT on outside groups, election spending, and 2012

Those heavy-spending outside groups that have come out in force this election season? We’re likely to see their ilk (and their TV-ad-heavy handiwork, if not their donor lists) again in 2012, according to both the New York Times and the LA Times yesterday.

Per the LA Times:

The 2010 congressional campaign ending Tuesday has been marked by a flood of unregulated, often secret campaign money that has transformed the political process, challenged the role of political parties, and sharply increased the power of wealthy individuals and groups on both the right and left.

And those trends are expected to grow as the 2012 presidential campaign begins.

A similar start from the New York Times:

The midterm election campaign will end Tuesday, but one of its most marked developments — the emergence of outside groups, often backed by anonymous donations, that can direct waves of advertising into political battles — is just getting started.

More NYT:

Whatever the outcome of Tuesday’s elections, American Crossroads, Crossroads GPS and a consortium of other new arrivals on the political scene gave Republicans something Democrats largely did not have this year: a professionally run set of agile and extremely well-financed groups working outside the campaign finance system with a narrowly focused agenda of defeating the opposition.

The chairman of American Crossroads boasts to the NYT:“We’ve planted the flag for permanence, and we believe that we will play a major role for 2012.”

And the less-“agile” Democrats? Pennsylvania’s Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell tells the NYT, “If this is what the playing field is going to look like, then we need to play to win.”

The LAT, too, gets a if we don’t beat ‘em, we’ll join ‘em quote from a Democrat:

Looking ahead, some Democrats say they will adapt to the new game, in which large and sudden influxes of money from outside groups are a constant possibility.

This is the new normal,” said Joan Fitz-Gerald, president of America Votes, a little-known but influential organization that coordinates interest groups sympathetic to Democrats. “Whether we will have to do it in just the way they did, perhaps not. But we do need to squarely face reality,” she said, looking ahead to 2012.

(Might the LAT one day tell us more about this “little-known but influential” group, America Votes?)

This is not, however, “a new game,” as the LAT has it— at least not entirely. Notes the NYT:

[S]ix years ago… Democrats and liberals set up a network of independent groups that raised and spent hundreds of millions in donations from unions, corporations and wealthy individuals to help the presidential campaign of Senator John Kerry against his better-financed rival, President George W. Bush. (Those groups, however, were generally set up as political committees that had to disclose their donors’ identities under the tax code.)

527s, that is, were the go-to group in 2004, and Democrats worked that route back then. This year, 501(c)(4)s have risen in popularity. As Doyle McManus put it in a recent LA Times column:

This year’s innovation is the no-holds-barred use of a section of the federal tax law that covers nonprofit “social welfare” organizations: 501(c)(4). Traditionally, 501(c)(4) organizations are groups such as the NAACP or AARP, not political campaigns. But some canny political entrepreneurs, initially Democrats but now mostly Republicans, realized that 501(c)(4) committees could buy television commercials — to denounce Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), for example — and never disclose who their donors were.

That’s a scandal. Voters deserve to know who’s paying for campaign commercials, on both sides, even if an ad isn’t directly coordinated by the candidate who benefits from it.

(And, voters want to know who’s paying for campaign commercials, according to a new ABC News/Washington Post poll in which 75 percent of registered voters said this was “very” or “somewhat” important to them to know.)

In deciding how to use “this year’s innovation” over the next two years, Democrats, as the NYT wrote yesterday, must “balance the [Obama] administration’s demands for more transparency in campaign finance against the pressure for liberal groups to do more to counteract the strength of their conservative counterparts.” Further, “Democratic fund-raisers said a more robust effort would require some sort of public sign that the administration would look favorably upon such activity, or at least not speak out against it.”

Might a “sign” of sorts be forthcoming? More NYT:

The White House has been focused on passing the so-called Disclose Act, proposed legislation that would place new limits on interest groups trying to influence elections by restricting corporate spending in some instances and requiring new levels of disclosure over all.

But, speaking on the condition of anonymity because they did not want to engage in a public dialogue on the matter when they were so focused on Election Day, strategists for Mr. Obama said they were intent on avoiding a situation in which they would have no answer to millions of dollars — if not tens of millions — in advertisements from groups like Crossroads and Crossroads GPS.

Maybe not quite the emphatic “sign” would-be Democratic donors want. Yet.

An aside: “They did not want to engage in a public dialogue on the matter when they were so focused on Election Day.” But to have their say on the matter anonymously when they were so focused on Election Day? Engaging!

Another aside: The NYT singles out, high up in its story, the ongoing work of American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS, noting how these two “new conservative groups…are planning to keep pushing their agenda in the lame-duck session of Congress that will begin in two weeks.” But the Times doesn’t mention, as the Washington Independent’s Jesse Zwick points out, one reason, beyond just “keeping the positive momentum going” into 2012, that the 501(c)(4) Crossroads GPS might want to “keep pushing their agenda” after Election Day. Per Zwick:

[I]t’s also a means of balancing the group’s ledger so that its “primary purpose” doesn’t look like electing federal candidates by the time the group files its tax returns in 2011. By advocating on issues following the elections, in other words, Crossroads GPS can drive down the percentage of its spending on election activities, a percentage that many watchdog campaign finance groups have complained is well beyond the 50 percent mark now. According to the tax code, section 501(c) nonprofits’ primary purpose can’t be to elect candidates for office.

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.