WASHINGTON -- The 2010 election was a disaster for Democrats in Congress. The party lost 63 seats in the House of Representatives and six in the Senate. Any and all measures would be needed to prevent a repeat, particularly with 21 Democratic Senate seats up for election.
Spending by conservative groups unleashed by the Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision, including the Karl Rove-founded Crossroads groups, were seen as costing the Democrats many races, and they sought to blunt their opponents' advantage.
"The meta-lesson from this last election cycle is that showing up and participating in the process is key, which is something that we didn't do in 2010," said Rodell Molineau, executive director of the Democratic super PAC American Bridge 21st Century. "I think a lot of Democrats ceded the field on super PACs because most people in progressive circles didn't believe in the Citizens United ruling."
After the 2010 bloodbath, Democrats saw that the need to compete trumped opposition to Citizens United, which opened the door to unlimited corporate and union spending in elections. American Bridge was one of three major super PACS that Democrats formed, along with Senate Majority PAC and House Majority PAC, to combat the conservative advantage in congressional races.
In 2010, conservative outside groups held a three-to-one advantage in spending on House races and a slightly more than two-to-one advantage in Senate races, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The formation of the Democratic super PACs and their coordination with traditional liberal groups -- labor, environmental and women's groups -- helped cut that advantage to less than two-to-one in both House and Senate races in 2012, according to Federal Election Commission data.
Andy Stone, spokesman for House Majority PAC, explained the reason for his group's creation, "The House Majority PAC thinking was that we didn't need to be even with the Republicans in all of these races, but we needed to reduce that disparity."
A memo from Majority PAC released after Tuesday's election detailed a similar reasoning, "Majority PAC was formed with a clear mission: fight Rove and his allies to hold the Senate Democratic majority."
In the end, conservative groups reported spending $102 million on House races, compared with $79 million for Democratic groups. In Senate races, conservatives spent $135 million, compared with $89 million for Democrats.
Not everyone is happy. "It's a huge mistake," said former Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold, the president of Progressives United and the co-author of the 2003 campaign finance reform law. He added, "I don't think we won because of this thing."
The emergence of successful Democratic super PACs is an awkward topic for Democrats, who universally oppose the Citizens United ruling that allowed unlimited outside spending. Party leaders, including Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, have attended super PAC fundraisers, while pushing for the repeal of the 2010 ruling.
Those who run the Democratic groups said that they aren't going to sit on the sidelines so long as the Citizens United ruling remains in place.
"Unless and until something changes, House Majority PAC will be a permanent part of the Democratic infrastructure," Stone said.
Mollineau added, "If you're fighting with a different set of rules than your opponents, then you're doomed to failure."
Since reaching near parity with Republicans after the 2010 disaster, Democrats have created some positive reinforcement for the continuation of their super PACs. The party came out of 2012 with a net gain of two seats in the Senate (plus one likely independent in Maine) and a gain of up to eight seats -- some may go to recounts -- in the House.
These included victories in races heavily targeted by House Majority PAC, like Florida's 18th Congressional District, where incumbent Tea Party Rep. Allen West looks to have lost reelection. The group also points to California's 26th Congressional District race, where Democrat Julia Brownley won, as another example of their spending success.
They were aided by a strategy of reserving advertising time early, capitalizing on lower rates to get more advertisements for each dollar spent.
Majority PAC organized other outside groups, including environmental, labor and women's groups, to plot which group would present each message. This minimized overlap or duplication.
American Bridge's efforts similarly sought to reduce duplication and costs by providing a one-stop shop for research and tracking. The group had trackers following every major Senate candidate and many House candidates, collecting footage of their statements on a daily basis.
In some cases, American Bridge worked to make the Senate map more favorable to Democrats by targeting stronger Republican candidates for defeat in contested primaries.
In Indiana, the group helped push the story that incumbent Sen. Richard Lugar did not reside within Indiana. This story was picked up and pursued heavily by Lugar's opponent, state treasurer Richard Mourdock, prevailed in the primary, only to lose in the general election after making controversial remarks about rape.
"We knew that Richard Mourdock held extreme views that were out of the mainstream of most Americans, let alone most Hoosiers," Mollineau said. "You couldn't, just like with [Missouri Senate candidate] Todd Akin, you can never predict something as insensitive and outrageous as what Richard Mourdock said."
American Bridge made similar moves in the Republican primary election in Missouri to help Akin, who would go on to lose against Sen. Claire McCaskill after making similarly controversial rape remarks.
"During the primary we made a decision to go after [John] Brunner and [Sarah] Steelman, knowing what was in Todd Akin's portfolio," Mollineau explained. "Once again, never in my wildest imagination could I ever expect someone to say what he said."
To help in coordinating their efforts, the independent Democratic effort relied on data compiled by both Catalist and the Atlas Project. Unions and others like MoveOn and America Votes provided get-out-the-vote efforts that supplemented the massive ground game controlled by President Barack Obama's campaign.
This coordinated effort will continue into 2014 and beyond, according to the groups. There are already plans to expand research, tracking and targeting to state races. None of will sit well with former Sen. Feingold and other campaign finance reform supporters.
"We need to be smart enough to be the party that doesn't believe in this sort of thing," Feingold said.
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