Election Watch: The Growing Impact of Super-PACS

By / 5.18.2012

This week’s major down-ballot contest was in Nebraska’s Republican Senate primary, where State Senator Deb Fischer came from far behind to beat the long-time front-runner, Attorney General Jon Bruning, along with “movement conservative” favorite, State Treasurer Don Stenberg.

Despite some media treatment of the outcome as another “conservative insurgent” victory over an “establishment moderate,” it’s not at all clear that ideology had much to do with Fischer’s victory. A late PPP survey (which very accurately predicted the outcome) showed Fischer drawing support from all ideological elements of the GOP, and benefitting from a loud and expensive Bruning-Stenberg slugfest that mainly focused on Bruning’s ethics and possible vulnerability against Democrat Bob Kerrey.

Outside conservative groups (especially the Club for Growth and Jim DeMint’s Senate Conservative Fund) backed Stenberg rather than Fischer, but understandably tried to save face by taking credit for Bruning’s defeat. Fischer opened up a big lead over Kerrey in the first post-primary polling, and Democrats would be unwise to view her as another Sharron Angle, Christine O’Donnell, or Richard Mourdock who sacrifices electability to ideological purity. Kerrey could still make it a race, but it won’t be easy.

The other aspect of the Nebraska contest worth mentioning is the role of last-minute ad barrage by a Super-PAC set up by AmeriTrade founder and Chicago Cubs co-owner Joe Ricketts, who ran both pro-Fischer and anti-Bruning ads. Fischer was “surging” even before then, but it’s reasonably clear Ricketts put her over the top for a mere $200,000. Aside from its impact on this specific contest, Ricketts’ gambit shows that for all the talk of Super-PACs affecting the presidential race, their biggest effect will probably be on down-ballot races, particularly in states with inexpensive media markets. And for future reference, it’s worth noting that down-ballot primary contests are the ripest environment for Super-PAC influence, for the simple reason that candidate allegiances are much more fluid than in general elections where party affiliation determines the vast majority of votes.

Ricketts, of course, got a lot more famous later in this week, thanks to a heavily discussed New York Times report that he was trolling for negative ad copy to use in a proposed $10 million anti-Obama blitz. The leaked copy, apparently put together by the famously unconventional Republican media consultant Fred Davis (last seen in the failed Jon Huntsman presidential campaign), featured the president’s relationship with his former pastor the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the topic that John McCain refused to let his campaign use in 2008, to the great consternation of many conservatives. Within hours of the appearance of the Times story, Mitt Romney’s campaign, Mitt Romney himself, and then both Ricketts and Davis had all repudiated the ad, with the latter gents emphasizing it was just an idea, not a “plan.”

In the short term, the brouhaha probably took Jeremiah Wright off the table for another election cycle. But more generally, it demonstrated the theoretical power of Super-PACS to pursue themes the candidates they support don’t necessarily approve of (or at least claim they don’t approve of). It also showed the continuing, and perhaps even deepening, rift between a Romney campaign that currently wants the election to become a narrowly focused “referendum” on Obama’s handling of the economy, and a conservative activist “base” and media presence interested in talking about everything else, especially the polarizing cultural themes they believe McCain shirked in 2008.

Aside from that wild moment, the presidential campaign showed signs of settling into the long slog to November, with both Obama and Romney running their first general-election ads. Romney is also benefitting from a big anti-Obama national ad buy from Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS.

Though you never know when drama will erupt, the next regularly scheduled national electoral moment will be on June 5, when Wisconsin holds its long-awaited recall election matching up Gov. Scott Walker and his 2010 opponent, Milwaukee mayor Tom Barrett. Walker has suddenly begun opening up a significant lead in the polls, and already has a big financial advantage. The dire straits facing the recall campaign were reflected this week in angry criticism of the DNC by Wisconsin Democrats complaining that the national party had yet to spend a dime in the state. Democrats will, however, likely enjoy an advantage in “ground” efforts to turn out the vote, with both state and national unions treating the recall as a do-or-die challenge.

Photo Credit: Tony L. Wong