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Outside groups changing the political game for good

'Super PACs' and others are cementing their status as permanent fixtures in the political firmament, with resources that rival those of the official parties.

October 21, 2012|By Matea Gold, Washington Bureau

But not all of the groups have the same aims as the parties. AFP, for example, would not hesitate to target Republicans "if they were to go off the rails again on spending and economic freedom," Phillips said.

That makes the political landscape not only much more crowded, but much more complicated.

"Most of those folks are responsible, but clearly there is risk with so many super PACs," said Mississippi-based GOP political strategist Henry Barbour, noting that party officials now must contend with well-funded outside groups on their turf. "There are a number of additional significant stakeholders who are driving paid messaging. How do you deal with that?"

Party officials note that they still perform many functions that outside groups cannot, including coordinating their advertising with candidates — getting a discount on airtime in the process — and mustering massive field operations. The Republican National Committee is spending hundreds of millions on its get-out-the-vote program, which employs 600 people around the country.

"They can't do what we can do," RNC Chairman Reince Priebus said. "We can do more with our money than any other entity. They have not affected our ability to operate and be functional."

But because donations to outside groups are not capped, they have one major advantage over the parties, which can accept only up to $30,800 a year from an individual.

As of Saturday, outside groups — many fueled by seven-figure donations from wealthy contributors — reported having pumped at least $675 million into political ads and other forms of voter outreach in 2012 federal elections. That's more than double the amount outside groups spent in the 2008 cycle, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.

And this cycle's total doesn't include tens of millions of dollars worth of "issue ads" that ran early in the campaign, paid for by tax-exempt groups that were not required to report them.

The gusher of money has led to renewed calls — especially by conservatives — to abolish the contribution limits to political parties so they are not overshadowed by outside groups.

"I'd much rather have that money flow to candidates and parties, so it's very apparent to the public that you were responsible for your own ads," said Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Gold River), who introduced legislation this year to roll back nearly all federal contribution limits.

The RNC has pressed the same issue in the courts, filing a suit this summer that would abolish the cap on the combined total an individual can give to party and candidate committees, set at $117,000 for the 2012 cycle. After a U.S. District Court dismissed the case last month, the RNC appealed it to the Supreme Court.

"I do think the national parties should have the same ability to raise money," Priebus said.

Campaign finance reform advocates scoff at the idea that unshackling the limits on donations to parties would diminish the role of independent groups.

"Really, all you're doing is opening up yet another avenue for yet more money to come in," said Meredith McGehee, policy director for the Campaign Legal Center, which defends campaign finance laws. "And you're doing it through an avenue that the courts have repeatedly recognized raises the potential for conflict of interest and corruption."

INTERACTIVE: Watch the ads, track the spending

INTERACTIVE: Outside spending in congressional races

Melanie Mason in the Washington Bureau contributed to this report.

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