American Crossroads and the Ascendant Super PACs

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The leaders of American Crossroads, the conservative super PAC formed last year under the watch of Karl Rove, sat down with reporters at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast in D.C. this morning. The subject of the discussion was, of course, money: the role deep-pocketed super PACs will play in 2012 and the specific spending plans of American Crossroads, one of the most potent of this increasingly powerful breed of organization.

A quick review of our campaign finance keywords: Super PACs, or independent expenditure-only committees, can spend unlimited amounts in races to support or oppose a candidate. Outfits like American Crossroads reveal those transactions in Federal Election Commission filings. Related non-profits, like the American Crossroads’ spinoff Crossroads GPS, don’t have to disclose where their money comes from, and those 501(c)(4) organizations can, in turn, donate unlimited amounts to PACs like American Crossroads. Meanwhile, the Citizens United ruling gave corporations the go-ahead to donate all they want to independent groups. Hence the fear that races will become Company A vs. Company B rather than Candidate A vs. Candidate B, with traditional fundraisers left by the wayside.

In the recent special election in New York’s 26th District, won by Democrat Kathy Hochul, American Crossroads outspent the National Republican Congressional Committee, almost $700,000 to $425,000. According to OpenSecrets.org, they spent $21 million during the previous 2010 election cycle. At the breakfast were American Crossroads Chairman Mike Duncan, a former Republican National Committee head, and Steven Law, previously general counsel for the Chamber of Commerce and currently president of both American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS. The goal this time around, they said, is to raise $120 million.

How will they use it? Law and Duncan said it’s too early to estimate how the groups will apportion their cash among the House, Senate and presidential races. But they were adamant that American Crossroads will not play any role in the GOP primary, unless it decides to go on the offense against Obama as the nomination draws near. It will not provide a primary endorsement, tacit or otherwise. This was something of a sticking point at the breakfast given the formation of a new super PAC by Mitt Romney supporters. American Crossroads’ political director Carl Forti has posts in both, but Law said keeping the work separate wouldn’t be an issue.

When pressed on what some see as the unsettling proliferation of super PACs, Law and Duncan point their fingers firmly at the Left, saying that the money an incumbent president can raise puts them in a “David and Goliath” situation where they have no choice but to take advantage of every route they can. Obama is going to raise $1 billion, they say, while labor groups will throw in millions more, so they’re just trying to even the field. Law characterized Crossroads as “an outside fomenter of additional competition in the system.” This particular fomenter outspent every other super PAC in the 2010 election cycle by about $15 million.

When asked whether this kind of spending on both sides is good for the country, Duncan turns the question into one about freedom of speech, as the Supreme Court did in Citizens United. They paint the Democrats as more powerful foes than they were in 2010, which sounds self-effacing but is also more justification for not worrying about the broader implications of super-PAC spending. And it’s an assertion that’s easy to counter, at least in part, given the state of the economy.

One of those publicly skeptical about the effect super PACs will have is satirical newsman Stephen Colbert, who is making his point by attempting to form his own. (Its most-excellent motto: “Making a better tomorrow, tomorrow.”) Among the questions he has raised, which will be addressed at an FEC hearing next week, are whether his discussion of his PAC on-air would constitute an in-kind contribution from his show’s parent company, Viacom. If so, that could force American-Crossroads talk by FOX News favorite Karl Rove, officially an unpaid advisor, to be curtailed, as well as similar commentary by other high-profile pundits with super PACS of their own.

In discussing his super PAC, Colbert well summed up a feeling at the heart of forming such committees, on both sides: “I believe that the Citizens United decision was the right one,” he told Politico when recently filing his papers at the FEC. “There should be unlimited corporate money, and I want some of it. I don’t want to be the one chump who doesn’t have any.”

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