How super PACs succeeded in 2012

There's one area where outside spenders won big: Republican primaries

This post has been corrected. See note at bottom.

After the Republican Party and its biggest super PAC and dark money supporters suffered a painful string of defeats on Election Day, the media wasted little time in declaring outside money a dud. Nearly every major paper ran versions of the same story: how the new breed of political spending groups had set their money on fire, their advertising and outreach were outclassed by campaigns, their megadonors reduced to consolation group hugs on corporate jets.

“Record spending by independent groups, which in many ways defined how campaigns were waged this year, had no discernible effect on the outcome of most races,” wrote The Washington Post’s Dan Eggen and T.W. Farnam on the day after Election Day. “Spending by outside groups, it turns out, was the dog that barked but did not bite.”

The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Politico led with similar messages, while acknowledging that outside spending had influenced some House races, potentially narrowed the gap between Obama and Romney, and contributed to the negative tone of campaigns.

But their stories forgot to consider a crucial piece of the puzzle: the role of outside money in primaries.

Though understandable immediately after the general elections, this oversight has contributed to the oversimplified and often misleading “dud” narrative that has emerged about independent spending. This misconception becomes increasingly important as the press takes on the biggest question now facing Washington, DC: whether conservatives in Congress can reach agreement with President Obama on major tax and spending issues. Outside spending groups and their power to make game-changing contributions in primaries—particularly in the Republican Party—will likely prove key factors in shaping the budget and spending negotiations taking place in the coming months.

CJR broke down outside spending in Republican Congressional primaries in the 2012 election cycle. We found that outside spending in these races came overwhelmingly from very conservative groups such as the Club for Growth and FreedomWorks—and that these groups were far more successful in picking winners of primaries than they were of general elections. And although outside spending is only one of many factors that can contribute to a candidate’s victory or defeat, winning percentage is precisely the metric many experts used to dismiss outside spending after the general election.

Below are the top ten outside spending groups in 2012 Republican primaries:

Spending Committee Amount Spent
Club for Growth $8,954,181.73
Texas Conservatives Fund $2,313,934
FreedomWorks $1,937,785.14
Liberty for All Super PAC $1,667,833.86
Majority PAC $1,583,340.55
Senate Conservatives Fund $1,398,877.91
Campaign for Primary Accountability $1,090,925.70
House Majority PAC $1,008,156.65
Patriot Majority USA $984,282.65
American Action Network $969,882.90
Source: The Sunlight Foundation, database of independent expenditures. Totals included all funds associated with the group, such as Club for Growth, Club for Growth Action, and Club for Growth PAC.

The dominance of spending groups from the conservative wing of the party is striking. As mainstream organizations such as the National Republican Congressional Committee, National Senate Republican Committee and Karl Rove’s Crossroads groups sat out the primaries, fully a quarter of all outside spending on these races came from the hardline Club for Growth alone. The Club for Growth spent more than three times more than any other organization, and several of the top contributors that followed had similar ideological agendas: FreedomWorks, the Liberty for All Super PAC, and the Senate Conservatives Fund.

An exception is the second largest outside spender in Republican primaries, the Texas Conservatives Fund, which supported the relatively moderate David Dewhurst in his Senate primary battle again Tea Party favorite Ted Cruz—and lost. The other leading rivals to very conservative groups for outside spending on GOP primaries were Democratic groups such as Majority PAC and House Majority PAC, which sought to weaken strong Republican candidates before the general election season.

Not only did hardline groups provide the bulk of outside spending in these races, but major outside spenders were often more successful in Republican primaries than they were in general elections.

Source: The Sunlight Foundation, database of independent expenditures.

CJR examined the winning percentage of the five biggest outside spending groups in these primaries—defined as the proportion of their expenditures that either supported a winning candidate or opposed a loser. The data shows (click to enlarge) that the Club for Growth and FreedomWorks, the two heavyweight spending groups that back the right wing of the GOP, both did about twice as well picking winners of primaries as they did picking winners of the general election. Again, it may not be surprising that spenders would get better returns on primary bucks—but it’s the same measure that was widely used to pan their performance in the general election. Many of these groups were also distinctive in the degree that they focused on primaries, even as the biggest outside spending groups overall spent upwards of nine out of ten dollars on the general election.

Even the Democratic outside spending group Majority PAC did well in Republican primaries. It devoted most of its GOP primary expenditures to attacking Missouri Senate candidate Jon Brunner, whose defeat paved the way for the nomination of Todd Akin—who promptly thereafter shared his now-infamous views on “legitimate rape.”

The powerful showing by very conservative spending groups in the 2012 primaries influences Congressional Republicans in several ways. As reporters often note, their positions on key votes before Congress are carefully heeded on Capitol Hill. The most dramatic instance of conservative Republicans’ refusal to negotiate with the president, in which the party’s right wing defeated House Speaker John Boehner’s Plan B on fiscal cliff negotiations before it came to a vote, came after leading Tea Party spending groups called for plan’s defeat. More recently, the Club for Growth’s acceptance of a Republican plan to suspend the debt ceiling was portrayed as an important factor in the bill’s passage.

But reporters often stop short of connecting the dots between this lobbying influence and the groups’ heavy spending and strong track record in Republican primaries. Some experts say that the greatest impact from conservative dominance of outside spending may be the fear it generates among Republican incumbents of a primary challenge from the right. “As much as anything it’s the threat of a primary from these groups, ” said Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute. “It does create a serious challenge to leaders in trying to keep their members in tent on deals that involve compromise.”

The political consequences of this pressure on the right have begun to raise alarms among mainstream Republican groups. The Wall Street Journal reported that after several stinging defeats on Election Day, Republican leadership in the Senate was planning to take a more active role in the party primaries to ensure more electable candidates. Karl Rove’s Crossroads groups, reported The Washington Post, are considering joining the fray as well:

Where until now it battled only in general elections and against Democrats, Crossroads is considering whether to start picking sides in Republican primaries. The idea would be to boost the candidate it deems most electable and avoid nominating the kind of flawed and extreme ones who cost the party what should otherwise have been easy Senate wins in Florida, Missouri and Indiana.
John Feehery, a Republican strategist who managed communications for former House speaker Dennis Hastert and then-Minority Whip Tom DeLay, said he hoped that mainstream groups would get involved in GOP primaries, but that outside money was only one of several factors at play.

“The problem is that it is hard to get moderates to vote in primaries,” Feehery said in an email. “So a more moderate message doesn’t work well. So what ends up happening is that the more moderate groups get forced to out-conservative the conservatives and then it gets real ugly.”

The signals from the Republican establishment that it will take a greater role in party primaries have not been lost on the more hardline groups that currently dominate outside spending. Chris Chocola, the president of the Club for Growth, fired back in a column in the Kansas City Star that charged party leaders with confusing “conservative” with “unelectable”:

In the wake of some missed opportunities to pick up seats in the U.S. Senate over the last few cycles, one tactical change floated by the GOP establishment is that the party apparatus and its affiliated Super PACs should play a more influential role in primaries to make sure that more “electable” candidates are nominated.

It is hard to imagine a bigger mistake.

One of the key indications of whether mainstream Republican spending groups have joined the battle for control of their party will be the crucial budget and deficit negotiations that play out in the coming months. Reporters and political observers should pay close attention to the positions, lobbying activities and any advertisements run by very conservative groups such as the Club for Growth and FreedomWorks as Congress debates the federal budget, the painful package of spending cuts known as the sequester, and the need to once again raise the debt ceiling. Equally crucially, they should watch whether GOP establishment groups begin to fight back, offering contributions or political cover to Congress members who wish to compromise.

As they do so, they should reconsider the faulty “dud” narrative about outside spending that surfaced in the aftermath of November’s vote. Outside money is likely to play a crucial role not only in the coming battles over spending, but in the expensive and hard-fought primaries that will help to shape the future of the Republican Party.

Correction: The initial version of this post incorrectly stated that the Texas Conservatives Fund backed the Tea Party-aligned candidate Ted Cruz in his Senate primary. In fact, the group supported Cruz’s primary opponent, Texas Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst. The relevant passages of the story have been corrected. CJR regrets the error.

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Sasha Chavkin covers political money and influence for CJR's United States Project, our politics and policy desk. He has written for ProPublica, the Center for Public Integrity, and The New York World. Follow him on Twitter @sashachavkin. Tags: , , , , , , , ,