Political Parties Cede Campaign Power to Outside Groups

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Non-party groups that have dominated the midterm campaign are about to eclipse national political parties in total reportable spending this election cycle, a review of Federal Election Commission data finds.

The milestone would mark an end to the supremacy of political parties in campaign spending compared to outside groups, possibly for the first time in history.

Non-party groups, such as the nonprofit U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the labor union American Federation of State and Municipal Employees, have spent roughly $205 million through Oct. 22, nearly surpassing the total spending by parties in 2008, according to the nonpartisan Campaign Finance Institute.

Political parties have only spent $115 million in this election cycle, down 34 percent from what they spent in each of the past two election cycles. In 2008, parties spent double their non-party counterparts, and in 2006, they spent more than quadruple.

The year-over-year decline in party campaign spending, coupled with the skyrocketing infusions of cash by non-party groups, raises questions about whether the traditional party organizations are losing influence in election campaigns.

Experts concede that broadly, in terms of money alone, the parties' dominance has faded in this election cycle.

"Had outside spending not increased so much, it's possible traditional party groups would have seen more money flowing their way," said Dave Levinthal of the Center for Responsive Politics.

Liberals and conservatives have formed their own political action groups to advance their unique interests and to take advantage of different, often less-restrictive rules for how they can raise and spend money.

American Crossroads, a "super PAC" with ties to Karl Rove, for example, formed as an alternative campaign outlet for "donors who wanted to give more than the maximum allowed to the RNC [Republican National Committee]," said spokesman Jonathan Collegio. The group has to disclose its donors but isn't subjected to donation limits.

"It was a plan to combat what the left had done so successfully with MoveOn.org and other groups in the 2008 elections," Collegio said.

These outside groups have also taken some control over campaign strategy away from traditional party leaders and individual candidates, independently coordinating their efforts to determine how and where to spend their funds.

Some Republican non-party groups have weekly strategy sessions and regular conference calls to orchestrate plans for individual races, much as national parties have traditionally done, The New York Times has reported.

"What it's doing is creating a couple of power centers within the parties," said Steve Ansolabehere, a political scientist at Harvard University, of the new dynamic. "But it's not necessarily taking money away from the parties overall or their ability to message effectively."

"These organizations that are spending money independently are doing exactly the same thing as parties," said Ansolabehere. "When all is said and done after this election, we're going to look at those organizations and they're going to look like parties. It's just going to be another way money is flowing into campaigns."

Parties Have 'Plenty of Bullets' Left

The new dynamic has been perhaps most apparent within the Republican National Committee, where divisions over party leadership have simmered even at a time when the party is poised for big gains.

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