Consultants associated with Super PACs say their existence certainly doesn’t make party committees obsolete, even if it does refine the nature of their mission.
“You still need the party at the end of the day, primarily because they can talk to the campaigns,” says Collins. “They can coordinate where we can’t.”
It also narrows the options for Super PACs when it comes to TV ads. That makes attack ads the best option for Super PACs—one of the many strategic growing pains the new outside structures are undergoing.
“Because we can’t coordinate, we can’t always tell the unique personal attributes a candidate wants to market about him or herself,” Law says. “And of course, we don’t have original footage, which I think is the key issue that drives the success of a positive ad.”
When American Crossroads ran a positive ad for Rob Portman’s 2010 Senate race in Ohio, the state Democratic Party filed an FEC complaint. The complaint has yet to be resolved, though it shook up the donors at groups like American Action Network.
“All of the sudden, our donors started to pull back and say, ‘Are you sure this is all legal?” says Collins, who was then president of the organization. “Are you sure you don’t have a problem here? And so the effect was, if I’m going to get an FEC complaint for supporting a candidate I believe in, then I’m not going to do it.”
The NRCC adapted last cycle by getting into races earlier, says Brad Todd, whose firm OnMessage Inc. does work for the committee. Party committees can recruit and educate candidates, provide talking points and a support infrastructure for fundraising. They have storefront offices in counties across the country and institutional knowledge that lesser established outside groups are still developing.
“Parties are a brand, whereas Super PACs are projects,” says Todd.
Their presence has started to transform the party system, though. There’s evidence the additional expenditures are forcing campaign committees to be more ruthless when it comes to prioritizing resources and candidates.
“The Democrats did that last time,” says Law. “It was pretty impressive, frankly. They let a lot of their people go with a canteen and a pistol, and left them in the desert. You need to do that, I think.”
The next chapter of evolution, says Law, will be “party committees thinking through what they can offload” to outside groups, even if the two can’t coordinate.
When it comes to business considerations, says one Democratic consultant who asked for anonymity to speak candidly, working for an outside spending group as opposed to a campaign is “easier, more profitable and you have less accountability.”
It’s just one of the potential unintended consequences of the proliferation of outside spending groups—the potential for candidate campaigns to see a brain drain of sorts when it comes to top political talent who might decide to opt for the easier, and more lucrative, Super PAC account.
“Working for a Super PAC is certainly easier than trying to drag a candidate across the finish line from start to end,” the strategist says.
A handful of consultants on both the right and the left also griped that outside groups already suffer from the sort of clubbiness the official party committees are often accused of when it comes to selecting consultants.
“You basically need one of your friends in there. That’s how you get in,” says another strategist who has found getting business from the outside groups tough despite previous work for two major party committees.
Whether a critical mass of consultants opt to jump at the chance to add Super PAC work to their 2012 campaign load, and what that means for their client lists, is just one of the questions the upcoming cycle will likely answer.
For all the potential opportunities when it comes to political business, though, the arms race can’t go on indefinitely. Even the prospect of seemingly unlimited expenditures has limited returns and there’s only so much money that can be spent in pursuit of an election and only so much ad time to buy—all brakes on what a Super PAC can accomplish.
“You do reach a point where you can’t literally pack more money into a district,” says Collins, who estimated that when it comes to effectiveness the ceiling on a typical congressional race is about $10 million. He thinks plenty of races are likely to reach that ceiling in 2012.
“How much mail can you put in a mailbox? How many phone calls can you make?” he asks. “You reach a point where you’re just spending money.”