Outside groups have been a nuisance for Democratic strategist Tad Devine ever since his candidate was “swift-boated” during the 2004 presidential contest. Devine was a top adviser to Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) in an election year that serves as one of the most prominent early examples of a 527 group having a major impact at the national level.
The attacks on Kerry from Swift Boat Veterans for Truth—and the campaign’s lag in response—turned into one of the defining moments of the presidential race. Eight years later, the legal landscape has empowered outside groups to an extent never before seen, and many of Devine’s clients are still besieged—all the way down to the state legislative level.
“It’s really going beyond evolution,” says Devine. “The Supreme Court has empowered these Super PACs to become the dominant force in U.S. politics.”
Devine’s first taste of Super PAC involvement on the local level came during the 2010 cycle in North Carolina. His firm was doing media for a handful of state legislative candidates facing a well-funded outside effort to help Republicans take back the legislative chamber. The effort was led by Art Pope, a conservative multimillionaire and CEO of the discount-store conglomerate Variety Wholesalers. Pope funded the creation of Real Jobs NC, a 527, and Civitas Action, a 501 (c)(4).
The groups spent some $2.2 million across 22 state legislative races. The spending amounted to roughly $100,000 per race—the vast majority spent on mailers and TV ads hitting Democratic incumbents. The production value on the ads wasn’t exactly stellar, but the spending had a major impact. Of the 22 races Pope’s groups played in, 18 of the candidates he aided won.
One of the targets was former Democratic state Rep. Cullie Tarleton. A two-term incumbent, Tarleton lost his seat—51 percent to 48 percent— to Republican Jonathan Jordan, who was backed by Real Jobs NC.
“I don’t feel like I was defeated by the person I was running against,” says Tarleton, who’s hoping for some redemption this cycle. “I was defeated by Art Pope and his cronies, who bought themselves a legislature.”
Tarleton admits he was never prepared for, nor was he expecting, a sustained attack from a Super PAC—he remembers digging 26 negative mailers targeting him out of the garbage on a single trip to the post office. As an incumbent with high name recognition, Tarleton opted to run on his record and he went out of his way to avoid directly engaging Real Jobs NC, deciding not to respond to the group’s attacks tit-for-tat.
The Super PAC’s ads hitting him ran for just a couple of weeks, but they effectively painted Tarleton as a liberal Democrat out of step with the voters of his district. His big mistake: Tarleton simply watched it all happen. It’s something Tarleton vows not to do again as he’ll be the challenger this November.
The game plan this time, he says, is to combat the outside groups head on. The message: “The agenda that funded the Super PAC turned out to be the agenda of the legislature,” says Tarleton.
With one successful cycle already under their belts, outside groups in North Carolina are poised to pour even more money into this year’s legislative elections and they have some national help. In addition to the cash pumped in by Pope himself during the 2010 cycle, the Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC) accounted for a huge chunk of the money flowing to Real Jobs NC—more than $1.2 million, according to an analysis by the Institute for Southern Studies. In preparation for the 2012 elections, the RSLC has already sent $50,000 the group’s way. Spokesman Adam Temple wouldn’t say whether it is part of a concerted strategy by the RSLC to pump up conservative-friendly Super PACs in locales across the country, but more cash is likely coming.
Last spring, the attorney who set up Real Jobs NC founded a new group—the Carolina Business Coalition. A 501 (c)(6), the CBC established a 527 earlier this year for the purpose of promoting many of those newly elected Republican incumbents who have yet to cement their name recognition. Peter Barnes, a spokesman for the coalition, says it intends to spend around $350,000 this year on the 10 most heavily contested state legislative contests—the group has already spent $121,000 on state House races. Nine ads will begin airing in midsummer in an effort to help candidates brand themselves in their home districts.
“Our goal is to go out there and say, ‘If you’re going to vote the right way, you’ll have someone who’ll promote that,’” says Barnes.
The lesson for local candidates who haven’t already had to deal with outside groups, says Devine, is that Super PACs aren’t just looking to play on the federal level. With the campaign finance reins off, a company or wealthy donor in need of anything from a zoning change to a shift in local tax policy will increasingly look to Super PACs as their weapon of choice. And as they stretch down the ballot, Devine predicts the groups will gain a foothold in city and county-wide elections all across the country.