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Outside groups start fundraising early ahead of Senate midterm elections

February 6, 2014 at 6:38 PM EDT
In the battle to win or defend Senate seats in the November’s midterm elections, outside groups have already begun to spend massive sums of money. What role will this money play in shaping the campaigns and outcomes? Judy Woodruff talks to Matea Gold of The Washington Post.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Senate Democrats face a tough map in this November’s midterm elections, having to defend 21 seats, compared to 14 for Republicans.

Among the top targets for Republicans are seven seats currently held by Democrats in states that Mitt Romney won in 2012: Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana, Montana, North Carolina, South Dakota, and West Virginia. Democrats, meanwhile, view Kentucky and Georgia as their best pickup opportunities.

As the two parties stockpile resources for the fall campaign, outside groups have already begun spending massive sums of money. In fact, Americans for Prosperity, which is backed by conservative billionaires Charles and David Koch, has spent $27 million on ads just since August.

We examine the role that this money could play in shaping the battle for the Senate with Matea Gold. She reports on money and politics for The Washington Post.

Welcome again to the program.

MATEA GOLD, The Washington Post: Great to be here, Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Matea, political fund raising has gotten so complex, I think many people don’t realize how many different ways money can flow into a campaign. Just remind us what those are.

MATEA GOLD: Sure.

I mean, at the heart of it, you have always had your candidate committees. So candidates who are running for reelection, they raise money into their reelection committees. And then you have the party committee.

But post-Citizen United — and we’re now in our third cycle.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The Supreme Court ruling.

MATEA GOLD: The Supreme Court ruling which allowed corporations to spend directly on politics and ushered in some other changes as well, we now have a real explosion of activity outside those traditional structures.

So there’s been a creation of something called super PACs, which most people now have heard about, which are also political committees, but they can take in unlimited sums of money. And now we have tax-exempt groups, 501(c)(4) organizations that are set up under a section of the tax code as social welfare organizations that are permitted to do some political activity that are increasingly engaging in campaigns.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And your — some of your reporting is focusing on these particular groups, because, as we were just saying, they are raising extraordinary amounts of money. What are you finding?

MATEA GOLD: They really are.

And I think what we’re seeing is kind of an acceleration of the trends that we saw through the last two elections, which is that the money is increasingly flowing to the unregulated, undisclosed organizations outside the traditional structure. So tax-exempt groups like Americans for Prosperity are taking on really an outsized role.

And what’s so striking about their spending is not just the amount, but how early we’re seeing them jump in and trying to define the landscape for these midterms.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, by the way, this may be taking money away — we’re not sure yet completely — from these other groups that were trying to raise money.

MATEA GOLD: Yes, we’re not quite sure how it will all play out in the end.

One thing that’s been striking is some of the really big conservative super PACs from 2012, such as American Crossroads, have had really paltry fund-raising so far this year. There’s definitely a sense among conservative donors that I think they’re watching where they give their money, because so much was spent in 2012, and they obviously didn’t achieve their aims.

But (c)(4) groups seem to be very healthy, and as well as kind of candidate-based super PACs. We’re increasingly seeing specific race-based PACs set up in the states, and everyone has their own super PAC now.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And just remind us again, where is this falling on the political spectrum?  The nonprofit groups you have been focused on in this latest story are pretty much on the right end of the spectrum, right?

MATEA GOLD: Well, there’s no question that the most robust spending by (c)(4)s is on the right end of the spectrum. Conservatives use those vehicles more than on the left.

But we do see the same — that kind of spending on the left as well. And what’s been interesting this cycle is the Democratic super PACs that were really struggling to match the fund-raising with the Republican counterparts last time are seeing very healthy fund-raising. And Democrats seem very willing to give to these groups right now.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So you have been talking to a lot of people and doing your reporting. What are they saying about why they’re doing it so early?  Why this much money this early?

MATEA GOLD: Well, one of the lessons from 2012, I think, was the traditional kind of flood of spending we see in the fall right before Election Day, that’s too late now. People are so bombarded with messages that you need to reach voters increasingly early to really get your point across.

And now that means the fall before. So I think one of the risks is that a lot of voters are going to start tuning out these ads way before they make up their mind about who they are going to vote for.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But it’s interesting that it’s happening before even — in all these cases, before the primaries and before one even knows who the candidate is going to be.

MATEA GOLD: Right, for sure.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So what’s their thinking in doing it before it’s known who the contestants are going to be?

MATEA GOLD: Well, each group has different motivations.

What’s interesting is Americans for Prosperity has been really focused just on hitting vulnerable Democrats, particularly incumbent Democrats that are really facing tough reelections in the fall. They’re not engaging in primary fights. And they really are kind of softening them up before some of the Republican candidates are even selected in the primaries.

And then, meanwhile, a lot of the money being spent on the right is actually being spent by conservative groups vs. establishment Republican groups that are really fighting over the direction of the party. So we’re seeing money really kind of underscore these fissures all across the political spectrum.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, working at cross-purposes with the messages they’re sending.

MATEA GOLD: Exactly.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you found, though, a common theme in some of these ads that are being aired.

MATEA GOLD: Sure.

Well, I mean, Americans for Prosperity is really just hitting Democrats on Obamacare, their support for the president’s signature health care legislation. I think another lesson from 2012 learned by groups particularly on the right was that they had too many messages, that voters were hearing too many reasons why they should vote against Obama. So there’s a lot of focus on message discipline this time around.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Meanwhile, what are Democrats saying to you about their hopes of being able to catch up with this amount of money and this amount of advertising?

MATEA GOLD: Well, the Democrats are very aggressively focusing on the connection between AFP and the Koch brothers. That’s a great fund-raising tool for them. And they’re making a lot out of that in each specific race.

And they’re succeeding in a lot of cases in raising healthy sums of money. And I think we’re going to see they’re not going to be able to match, I don’t think, the resources that the tax-exempt groups on the right will have. But they will probably be able to be very engaged throughout the year.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Matea Gold, it’s a lot to keep your eye on at The Washington Post.”

MATEA GOLD: It is.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Thank you.

MATEA GOLD: My pleasure. Thanks.