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Inside the Democrats' Outside Money Machine

Can this team of political operatives match Karl Rove, the Koch brothers, and the right wing's dark-money juggernaut?

| Thu May 19, 2011 5:00 AM EDT

While Majority PAC is still plotting its electoral strategy, House Majority PAC has already jumped into the fray. In early April, the group made a six-figure ad buy in 10 different districts, from Wisconsin to Texas, bashing House Republicans for backing GOP Rep. Paul Ryan's controversial budget plan. At the time, the fledgling political committee was mere days old. "You're building a plane as you're trying to fly it," says Ali Lapp, a former campaign director for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee who's House Majority PAC's executive director.

That early ad buy previews House Majority PAC's strategy—hitting Republicans early and often. That is, after all, what the Crossroads groups did in the midterm elections, attacking Democratic candidates and framing the debate in those races. Lapp says doing so gives Democrats the best chance of knocking off vulnerable GOPers and protecting under-fire Dems. That, of course, means House Majority PAC will be targeting dozens of races throughout the country, and so a lean, no-frills operation is more important than ever. "The feeling among the Democratic strategists out there is we're not going to outraise the groups in the Republican side," Lapp says, "but we can spend that money more efficiently."

"Ultimately, we're trying to keep pace with the right wing and the resources of the Koch brothers and Karl Rove," says former Obama aide Bill Burton.

Bill Burton, who cofounded Priorities USA, has lots of experience framing the debate. He's a former spokesman for President Obama, Rep. Dick Gephardt, and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. In a recent interview, Burton declined to discuss the group's plans for the presidential election, saying it was too early to say for certain. But he name-dropped the likes of Karl Rove and the Koch brothers—half a dozen times, by my count—to emphasize what Democrats were up against.

Priorities USA has reportedly set a fundraising goal of $100 million for the presidential race. So far, the group has raised money from EMILY's List founder Ellen Malcolm, Hollywood executive Jeffrey Katzenberg, and philanthropist Rob McKay (who's also a Mother Jones board member). Still, with such an ambitious target, I asked Burton whether he envisioned potential fundraising conflicts between Priorities and other Democratic outside groups. He didn't see a problem. "I think different people want to invest in different types of organizations," he said. "Ultimately, we're trying to keep pace with the right wing and the resources of the Koch brothers and Karl Rove."

The last piece of the equation is American Bridge 21st Century, the brainchild of media guru David Brock. Brock is the founder of Media Matters for America, the liberal media watchdog that, in seven years, Brock has grown from a three-person shop to a $10-million-plus operation employing upwards of 90 researchers, trackers, and more. Now, Brock is looking to replicate that success in the arena of electoral politics.

American Bridge will serve as a clearinghouse of opposition research and candidate tracking that will feed information to the other three independent expenditure groups for use in TV ads, mailers, or other advertisements. It won't look like your typical oppo research shop, said a Bridge official who requested anonymity to discuss early planning. Traditionally, an outside research firm would dig up everything it can find on a candidate and then hand over a thousand-page tome stuffed into a three-ring binder. Bridge officials, however, want "to make it a living, breathing operation," says the official. That could mean publishing the group's research and tracking on a standalone website, and maintaining constantly updated profiles of GOP candidates available to the public.

Bridge plans to have trackers—who, armed with video cameras and voice recorders, can capture candidates' campaign trail missteps à la George Allen's "Macaca" debacle—based in states throughout the country. Trackers will also work out of DC and fly out to different states when needed, said the official.

All told, Bridge and its dark-money branch hope to raise $15 to 20 million for the 2012 cycle alone. The group has no plans to wind down after the upcoming election cycle. "We will be around cycle after cycle—donors like that," says the official. "We'll be a permanent piece of the campaign infrastructure."

I heard that same message repeatedly in interviews about the Democrats' new independent expenditure groups. This isn't a one-and-done scenario, they stress; they want to be an enduring presence in American politics. "This is something we have to continue," says Majority PAC's Dixon, "if we're going to compete with what's coming from the other side."

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