Bloomberg News

Crossroads Experiment Targets Secret Money at Congress

October 31, 2012

Crossroads Experiment Shows More Secret Money Aimed at Congress

Crossroads GPS has spent about $36.5 million to run 72,849 TV spots supporting former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney in his challenge to President Barack Obama for the White House, according to Kantar Media’s CMAG ad tracking service. Photographer: Scott Eells/Bloomberg

American Crossroads and Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies share an address, a president, a spokesman and a political outlook.

When it comes to fundraising and spending, they part ways.

Crossroads GPS, which doesn’t disclose its donors, has poured $75.3 million into television ads to help Republicans win House and Senate seats and take the White House, according to Kantar Media’s CMAG ad tracking service. Its sister organization, American Crossroads, has spent $58.6 on television ads, almost exclusively on the presidential race.

The disproportionate amount of money from unknown donors, which could include corporations and individuals, that is being plowed into congressional races may be an effort to shield the contributors from retribution if the candidate they attack eventually wins, said Trevor Potter, a former chairman of the Federal Election Commission.

“The statement I hear most often is that I want to spend money in politics, but I don’t want anyone to know because someone might object or I might face reprisals,” said Potter, who is now president of the Campaign Legal Center, which advocates disclosure in elections.

The Crossroads experiment also shows, given the choice, major Republican political donors prefer to operate in secret -- a precedent that likely establishes a model for future campaigns. Both groups declined to comment for this article.

No Fingerprints

“That such massive amounts of huge contributions have gone to Crossroads GPS tells us that a relatively small number of very wealthy individuals want to have disproportionate influence on the 2012 elections without leaving any public fingerprints,” said Fred Wertheimer, president of Demcracy21, a group that advocates for limits in campaign spending.

The groups, founded simultaneously with the guidance of Republican political consultant Karl Rove, share offices, management, consultants, and creative talent.

Crossroads GPS has spent about $36.5 million to run 72,849 TV spots supporting former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney in his challenge to President Barack Obama for the White House, according CMAG. In that race, American Crossroads has been even more active, spending an estimated $51 million on 57,302 spots.

GPS has used more than half of its cash -- about $39 million -- to boost Republican House and Senate candidates in close races and in competitive states. Many of the more than 23,000 ads by CMAG’s count use the tactic of criticizing the Democratic candidate by tying him or her to the president’s policies, allowing the ad to serve double duty as an anti-Obama ad as well.

New York Ads

A recent commercial against New York Democrat Louise Slaughter is an example.

“Congresswoman Louise Slaughter strongly supported President Obama’s failed stimulus,” the narrator says, listing government financed programs including “$25 billion for snow- making in Vermont.”

American Crossroads hasn’t run any ads in House races, according to CMAG. It’s spent $7.6 million in the Senate, compared with more than $35 million from GPS.

Crossroads GPS has spent $8.7 million to run 13 different ads opposing former Virginia Governor Tim Kaine’s campaign for Senate against Republican former Governor George Allen.

One spot that hit the airwaves earlier this month attacks Kaine for raising taxes.

“Kaine pushed tax hikes on people making just $17,000 a year,” the ad says. “Then Kaine backed Obamacare, and its tax on the middle class.”

Virginia Senate

Kaine spokeswoman Brandi Hoffine said the campaign has had to spend time and money refuting the Crossroads GPS ads.

“In terms of making up what Allen is lacking in terms of grassroots support, Crossroads is making up for that,” Hoffine said.

In the seven days ending Oct. 27, Crossroads GPS ran 5,860 ads in Senate races and 2,870 in House races while American Crossroads ran 1,758 in the Senate only.

The money from those unnamed donors can mean the difference between a candidate being competitive in a race or being unable to compete on fundraising.

In Ohio, Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown has raised $22.4 million according to the Center for Responsive Politics while his opponent, Republican Josh Mandel, has taken in $14.5 million.

However, Crossroads GPS spent $11.2 million in the state through Oct. 18, Mandel’s campaign spokesman Travis Considine said.

Court Rulings

A series of court rulings in recent years have overturned campaign finance laws and allowed corporations, non-profits and unions to spend unlimited amounts in political advertising as long as they don’t coordinate with a campaign. This led to the creation in 2010 and since then of dozens of non-profits like Crossroads GPS, which take in donations from individuals and companies in secret and spend it on the election.

“The idea that we’re having an election in which a significant amount of people don’t have the courage of their convictions to say that they’ve given this money takes us back to the Watergate era,” said Lee Drutman, a senior fellow at the Sunlight Foundation, which advocates for transparency in elections.

Nationally, groups that aren’t affiliated with a campaign or party have already spent $855.4 million this election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Of that, groups that don’t disclose the identities of their donors spent $265.4 million. These figures capture only expenditures that are reported to the FEC, which don’t include all television ads and voter-turnout operations.

Democratic Group

A Democratic group that tried to emulate the Crossroads model failed to find many takers for secrecy. Bill Burton, a former Obama spokesman who founded the super-political action committee Priorities USA Action said he couldn’t attract contributors who wanted to give money to the group’s non-profit arm, Priorities USA, which doesn’t disclose donors.

“People were much less interested in participating with a group that didn’t disclose,” he said. CMAG shows no advertising by the non-profit group.

Of course, some individuals and companies choose to make political donations in the open.

Texas businessman Harold Simmons has donated $17.5 million on American Crossroads according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Oilman T. Boone Pickens gave the group $1 million in October.

When asked why he chose American Crossroads over GPS, Pickens spokesman Jay Rosser said, “Easy answer. He believes in transparency.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Alison Fitzgerald in Washington at afitzgeraldk@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jeanne Cummings at jcummings21@bloomberg.net


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