WASHINGTON — Republican Karl Rove’s much-discussed “Crossroads” committees, which were seen as game-changers in the 2012 presidential campaign, turned out to be such a failure that some have wondered whether the entire field of super PACs will wither away amidst an exodus of disenchanted donors.
But analysts and those who run the committees said in interviews that, for a number of reasons, the opposite could be true. With lessons learned from this year’s campaign, the amount of unlimited and sometimes undisclosed contributions could actually increase as backers of both parties rearm for the 2014 midterm elections.
“We very well could see more money raised,” said Bill Allison of the nonpartisan Sunlight Foundation, which has analyzed the spending by super political action committees and related nonprofit groups. “Given that 2014 is a midterm with a lower turnout, a lot of these groups may have much better impact on the money spent on the House and Senate than they did on the presidential.”
Indeed, a lesson from the election is that super PACs seem miscast in their role of trying to influence the outcome of a general presidential election in which both the Republican and Democratic candidates already have hundreds of millions of dollars being spent on their behalf by their campaigns and parties. Ads funded by super PACs may have simply been lost in the barrage of commercials.
By contrast, the evidence is that super PACs and related groups can deeply influence hotly contested primaries and campaigns in which a candidate is relatively underfunded.
A super PAC called Restore Our Future was not able to fulfill its mission of getting Mitt Romney elected as president, but it played a major role in helping him win the Republican nomination. At least two of Romney’s competitors — former US House speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia and former US senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania — were able to stay in the race longer because of support from super PACs.
In the same way, backers believe super PACs have been more effective in primaries and general election races for the US House and Senate as well as for state legislatures. Challengers in such races often have limited resources, in part due to limitations on campaign contributions.
Super PACs are allowed to collect unlimited donations as long as they don’t directly coordinate with a campaign. A separate category of nonprofit groups, which don’t have to disclose donors, also play a major role.
Still, the experience of this year’s Election Day has proven unsettling for some groups and their backers.
With many of the financial reports now in, a clearer picture is available of just how poorly Republicans spent their money this year compared with Democrats. Rove’s American Crossroads super PAC spent $105 million to elect Republicans, but his success rate was calculated to be just 1.29 percent by the Sunlight Foundation. An affiliated nonprofit group, Crossroads GPS, which does not have to disclose donor names, spent $71 million, the foundation said.
Overall, super PACs affiliated with Republicans spent $408 million compared with $195 million by similar Democratic committees, but Democrats were far more successful, starting with President Obama’s victory. That has led to grumbling among big donors, a number of whom gave $1 million or more, that super PACs failed to live up to expectations. Some donors may either quit participating or demand more control over strategy.
Sheldon Adelson, who together with his wife, Miriam, contributed more than $53 million for the election, mostly to super PACs, has told friends that he is “disappointed but not discouraged” by the defeats of several preferred candidates. He plans to continue his generous political spending, according to an associate who requested anonymity to discuss the casino magnate’s personal financial plans. The Las Vegas Sands founder almost single-handedly propped up a super PAC backing Gingrich during the Republican primary, then shifted his support to Romney after Gingrich suspended his campaign.
At the Rove-led groups, talks are underway about the possibility of backing Republican candidates in the primaries who have a better chance of winning a general election contest.
Jonathan Collegio, a spokesman for the Rove groups, said that he knew of no donors who have vowed to stop their contributions.
An aide said Rove was unavailable for comment.
Collegio said the group had learned valuable lessons and will look for Republicans who can win general elections, not just promote conservative credentials to win primaries.
“We have lost six Senate seats in the last two cycles not because of bad message but we had substandard candidates,” Collegio said. While Collegio didn’t name which candidates were substandard, he said Crossroads this year spent money on behalf of Richard Mourdock of Indiana, who said during a debate that a pregnancy caused by rape is “something that God intended to happen.” Mourdock upset Senator Richard Lugar in the GOP primary but was defeated in the general election by Democrat Joe Donnelly.
Rove unsuccessfully called on another controversial candidate, Todd Akin of Missouri, to drop out of the race after he said women’s bodies have a way of preventing conception after “legitimate rape.” Akin stayed in the race and lost.
Rick Tyler, who ran a super PAC for Gingrich in the Republican primary and later tried to help elect Akin to the Senate, believes the problem is that Rove’s groups control too much of the Republican money.
Rove’s groups “were completely, utterly, and disastrously ineffective,” Tyler said. Tyler said he is already talking with potential donors about a super PAC that will focus on finding candidates committed to conservative principles. Rove “is the last person who should be influential in primaries. I’m already in discussion with people who I think would provide an alternative to the Rove model,” he said.
Democratic donors, slower than Republicans to enter the world of super PACs, are increasingly willing to contribute, according to Rodell Mollineau, president of American Bridge 21st Century, a super PAC that raised $11.4 million for Democratic candidates.
“We’re already looking at the 2014 map, and we’re also looking at some gubernatorial races,” Mollineau said. He added that the key to success is to spend early and selectively.
Some Republican-oriented super PACs that stayed out of the presidential race said they fared well. Club for Growth Action, the super PAC arm of the conservative Club for Growth, raised more than $17 million to promote Republican House and Senate candidates who support low taxes and limited government. Nine of the group’s 12 candidates won their races.
Club for Growth Action was influential in Ted Cruz’s successful bid to replace retiring Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, pouring $5 million into negative ads targeting David Dewhurst, the state’s lieutenant governor and the early front-runner in the Republican primary.
“We’re proud to have played a major role in helping Ted Cruz get his message out,” said Barney Keller, a spokesman for Club for Growth Action.
The super PAC also had a high-profile failure in backing Mourdock in the Indiana race. The committee spent almost $1 million in negative ads against Mourdock’s more moderate primary opponent, Lugar, and then $2 million against Mourdock’s Democratic opponent in the general election.
Fred Wertheimer, the president of Democracy 21, which is critical of the influence of money in politics, said super PACs will grow unless they are stopped by Congress or a Supreme Court ruling.
“The idea that anyone is going away because of the results of 2012 is just a fantasy,” Wertheimer said in regard to super PACs. As a result, he said, “We are going to see growth, we are going to see corruption, and we are going to see scandal out of super PAC money.”
Still, the veteran of many efforts to change the campaign finance system held out hope that the “arms race” to put greater dollars into the committees will stop once politicians realize they could be the next target.
“I think super PACs are going to be of great concern to public officials,” he said. “They are like political drones in that they can just dive into your race and just wipe you out with much larger amounts of money than you and your opponent have.”