House Majority PAC's Ali Lapp has toiled at the party committees and on K Street. But she's devoting 2012 to proving Dems can compete in the outside spending game.
In a recent sitdown with C&E, Lapp talked about her party's emerging outside spending machine and House Majority PAC's plans to take on groups like American Crossroads in 2012. Part of the Q&A is below. The full interview appears in the July/August issue of C&E.
C&E: Can Democrats take back the House next year?
Lapp: We’re very optimistic about our chances. A swing of 24 seats is not out of the realm of possibility for us and given the swings that we’ve seen over the last three cycles, it’s completely doable. There are some environmental factors at work. A public that’s still dissatisfied with the economy tends to take it out on incumbents. I think redistricting helps us, too. So we’re not taking anything for granted, but I hope with the advent of House Majority PAC, we’ll actually have a bigger player on our side to compete with Republicans in the outside spending game.
C&E: How did House Majority PAC evolve?
Lapp: We filed with the Federal Election Commission and were created in April of this year. A couple days later, we were on the air in 10 districts with radio ads against Republicans. There was a group last cycle called America’s Families First Action Fund, which focused entirely on House races. It was our predecessor group, so to speak. A lot of the same donors are supporting us and some of our seed money was left over money from that group.
C&E: When the outside groups like American Crossroads formed on the right last year, Democrats didn’t throw a counterpunch. Strategically speaking, your party was outmaneuvered in a big way last cycle, no?
Lapp: I certainly think a lot of Democrats did sit on the sidelines and let the Republican spending dominate the election cycle. There were things Republicans did really well last year, though. They took a lot of races off the map early by getting in there with early spending. And then there were races where they came in at the very end, [Rep.] Dan Maffei’s race in NY-25, for example. They overwhelmed that district with spending in the last week or two and we didn’t have the resources to compete with that. So I think there are a number of reasons why Democrats didn’t respond in kind last year, but I think those reasons are disappearing quickly.
C&E: These new groups on the left have the blessing of President Obama and the White House?
Lapp: Well, we’re completely focused on the House so I can’t really speak to the White House so much. But I haven’t heard the rhetoric out of [the president] that I heard last cycle. Take from that what you will.
C&E: You hear some Democrats saying, ‘We’re against outside groups in principle, but we have to form them in order to compete.’ Is that your feeling? Have you formed a group that you’re actually opposed to in principle?
Lapp: It’s sort of like Republicans who run for office and hate government? Look, there’s no question that regardless of what your philosophical view is of the outside spending, we have to compete at a higher level than we have in the past. As Democrats and as progressives, we believe in a set of values and if our candidates are getting completely overwhelmed by outside money, it’s our duty and our responsibility to do what we can to balance it out. I think Democratic operatives have varying views of disclosure versus non-disclosure and public financing. I can’t speak to that entirely, but there was no question in my mind when I thought about doing this that we could not sit on the sidelines anymore.
C&E: The FEC, after an advisory opinion request from your group, recently ruled that officials can appear at fundraisers for Super PACs, but cannot solicit unlimited funds. Is that the right decision?
Lapp: We were very pleased that the FEC denied [Republican campaign finance lawyer] James Bopp’s proposal to have federal officials and candidates raise unlimited sums of money for Super PACs. I think it’s to the FEC’s credit that it decided this quickly and clearly so that everyone understands the rules. It really doesn’t change anything that we’ll do. Our interpretation of the law was pretty much exactly as the FEC ruled so we’re still operating under the same assumptions that we had been.
C&E: What about Bopp’s interpretation that even though officials can’t ask for more than $5,000, donors would still be free to give any amount they chose in response to that request?
Lapp: I think Bopp is simply trying to make lemonade out of the lemons he was handed by the FEC. They were very clear and the law is very clear about the $5,000 federal maximum ask that covered officials can make. We’re going to follow that—both the letter of the law and the spirit of the law. If James Bopp is implying that he’s not going to do that, I think it’s a big problem for his group and for any federal elected officials that choose to work with that group.
C&E: Do outside groups pose a threat long term to the official party infrastructure?
Lapp: I think there will always be an integral role for party committees. I came out of the DCCC, myself. I worked both on the candidate side, doing incumbent retention, and then on the independent expenditure side. There are parts of the party committees that can coordinate with candidates, which is incredibly important. Also, some of that money can be spent more efficiently. Even though I’m running an outside group, I firmly believe that 99 percent of the time, the candidate’s message is what should be driving the day. It’s our goal as an IE operation to really know and understand what the candidate is doing and make sure that we’re enforcing it.
C&E: In the long view, are these outside structures here to stay?
Lapp: We established House Majority PAC to be a long-term institutional player. It’s not built around one member of Congress and it’s not built around simply taking the House back in 2012. We want it to be something that lives past November 2012, much like the groups on the right. I do think this is something that’s here to stay and I personally think that’s a good thing.