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The hidden infrastructure of the 2012 campaign has already been built.
A handful of so-called Super PACs, enabled to collect unlimited donations by the continued erosion of campaign finance regulations, are expected to rival the official campaign organizations in importance this election. In many cases, these groups are acting essentially as outside arms of the campaigns.
These are America’s best-funded political factions, their war chests filled by some of the richest men (and almost all are men) in the country.
More than 80 percent of giving to Super PACs so far has come from just 58 donors, according to the Center for Responsive Politics analysis of the latest data, which covers the first half of 2011. The Republican groups have raised $17.6 million and the Democratic groups $7.6 million. Those numbers will balloon, with American Crossroads, the main Republican Super PAC, aiming to raise $240 million.)
The exceptions are two public employee labor unions, whose massive donations match those of some of the largest moguls. The rest are individuals with vast fortunes at their disposal. They constitute two different tribes.
The conservative red tribe is dominated by businessmen who have built or inherited fortunes. They also include Wall Street investors, oil and gas men, construction magnates, and retail executives. Mormons are well represented.
The liberal blue tribe is dominated by men from Hollywood and media entrepreneurs — often Jewish — and the leaders of the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).
The Super PACs are not paragons of transparency, but what has been disclosed gives a sense of where the money is coming from and the interests of those giving it. Based on the donors and the origins of these groups, we can already discern what messages the Super PACs will generate in the home stretch of the campaign.
What follows is a pocket guide to the big money tribes of American politics, what they will tell you — and what they won’t.
Staffed by former officials from the Republican National Committee and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and associated with Karl Rove. Many consider it more important than the RNC itself. Certainly American Crossroads and Fox News control the GOP’s message in a way the Republican National Committee does not and cannot. It is not unfair to say that during a presidential election year, the Republican Party is more an adjunct to American Crossroads, than vice versa.
What you’ll hear: “Corrupt liberal elites squandered your hard-earned dollars on the socialist in the White House who appeases Muslims.”
Look for Crossroads to focus relentlessly on economic issues. Recent Web ads by the group hitting Obama for the stimulus package, for proposing new taxes on the wealthy, and imposing too many regulations on business offer a taste of what’s to come.
Crossroads’ favored form is the attack ad. The group has already bought billboards and radio airtime targeting Sen. Claire McCaskill, who is seen as a vulnerable Dem in 2012, for a scandal involving unpaid taxes on her private plane.
What you won’t hear: “Let’s ban abortion.” “George W. Bush was a good president.” “Time to reinstate ‘don’t ask, don’t tell.’”
RESTORE OUR FUTURE
Founded by former aides to Mitt Romney, this group is expected to maintain the minimum legal distance between itself and Romney’s official campaign. Romney himself even spoke at a Manhattan fundraiser for the group, though — apparently for legal reasons — he left the room before an explicit appeal for money was made, the Times reported.
Also pitching in $1 million to Restore Our Future is Jeremy Blickenstaff, Lund’s son-in-law and an attorney who has worked at Nu Skin. He does not have a history of political giving, but Blickenstaff did do a stint at the Marriage Law Foundation, a Utah-based group that “provides legal resources to defend and protect marriage between a husband and wife.”
What you’ll hear: “We need a man who has run a business running the White House.”
The group is legally barred from coordinating expenditures — such as buying ads — with the Romney campaign, but look for it to echo Romney’s message closely. Its bare-bones website, for example, declares that “It is time that we restore our future by supporting candidates who have worked in the private sector and created jobs, who understand the economy, and who believe in America, American workers, and American values.” That candidate is Mitt Romney, the group made clear in its formation announcement in June:
Our nation is burdened by a struggling economy; our job creators who are tied up with red tape, and a growing federal government is stifling the private sector. President Obama has failed to fix the problems that affect Americans. … Restore Our Future will support our next president, Mitt Romney.
Restore Our Future appears to have kept its powder dry — so far. As of its most recent Federal Election Commission filings, which cover the first half of 2011, the group has not bought any ad time or spent money on other substantive political action.
What you won’t hear: “Mitt’s healthcare plan is superior to Barack’s.”
PRIORITIES USA ACTION
A Democratic response to Rove’s American Crossroads, this group was founded in April by former White House deputy press secretary Bill Burton and former Rahm Emanuel aide Sean Sweeney. It will essentially function as an outside arm of the Obama reelection campaign.
What you’ll hear: “The GOP will cut your Medicare to fund tax cuts for the rich.”
It has already run a few ads, including a spot blaming Republicans for opposing economic reforms, giving tax breaks to the wealthy, and favoring a plan to “essentially end Medicare.” Previewing the themes of Obama’s reelection campaign if Mitt Romney is the nominee, the group bought ads in South Carolina — timed for a visit by Romney — attacking Romney’s support of Rep. Paul Ryan’s plan to end Medicare.
What you won’t hear: “Maintain status quo for Wall Street.” “Forever war in Afghanistan.” “Yes, we can … lead from behind.”
Founded this year by former aides to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Majority PAC is devoted to helping Democrats win in contested Senate races. “The best Senate strategists in the country are coming together for 2012 to make sure Senate races have every tool needed to win,” Susan McCue, one of the leaders of the effort and a former Reid chief of staff, told Politico. “We are approaching this as a team led by those who know how to win in the toughest, most competitive races across the country.” Reid himself along with Sen. John Kerry have sent out fundraising solicitations for the group, with Reid’s pitch explicitly framing Majority PAC as a means to counter “the deep pockets and nasty tactics of Karl Rove, the Koch Brothers and their network of corporate-backed special interest groups.”
What you’ll hear: “Tea Party bullies want to cut your Medicare and Obamacare to pay for tax cuts for Wall Street.”
Noting that 23 Senate Democrats are up for reelection in 2012 — compared to just 10 Republicans — Majority PAC says it will run “a transparent, low-overhead, take-no-prisoners Independent Expenditure campaign, [to] aggressively contest critical open seats, exploit opportunities to take over Republican seats and expand our firewall, and respond to attacks from Rove and his allies on Democratic Senate candidates.” So far the group’s website features state-specific ads from an affiliate group seizing on the GOP plan to end Medicare.
What you won’t hear: “America yearns for Harry Reid’s Las Vegas gravitas.”
HOUSE MAJORITY PAC
Yet another liberal Super PAC with deep ties to Democratic officialdom, it was founded this past spring by Ali Lapp, the former campaign director at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, along with a couple of other former DCCC officials. The goal: win a Democratic majority in the House.
What you’ll hear: “Eric Cantor and Tea Party bullies want to wreck government and Medicare to pay for tax cuts for the rich.”
Like the other Dem Super PACs, the House Majority PAC has seized on Paul Ryan’s plan to end Medicare. Its website says, “We’re fighting against the recently-passed Republican budget, which provides trillions in new tax cuts for corporations and the wealthiest Americans, but ends Medicare as we know it by turning it into a voucher program and forcing seniors to find and purchase private health insurance.” The House Majority PAC already ran an ad in New York’s special election attacking Republican Bob Turner on Medicare, and another ad against Wisconsin Republican Sean Duffy for his vote in favor of tax cuts for the wealthy. The Duffy spot also echoed President Obama’s recent focus on private jet owners.
What you won’t hear: “Greenlight Israel’s annexation of the West Bank.” ” America yearns for Nancy Pelosi’s San Francisco style.”
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Of course, the red and the blue tribes are hardly the only players in the political campaign. They have the deep pockets to dominate the airwaves with their advertising. But with the spread of the Internet, the influence of broadcast television is weakening.
There’s an invisible tribe too. There are a slew of political nonprofits that will also be running campaign ads in 2012 who, because of their classification in the tax code, do not have to release donor information. So it’s worth remembering there will be a lot of anonymous money in the game.
We’ll look at them in a future article .
Justin Elliott is a reporter for ProPublica. You can follow him on Twitter @ElliottJustinMore Justin Elliott.
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