How Democrats Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Super PAC

A day with House Majority PAC shows why unlimited spending is the norm, on both sides of the aisle.
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House Majority PAC knows how to stretch a dollar.

When I spent time with staff members earlier this week, their thriftiness was on full display. But these Democrats weren't talking about the best way to save on advertising, a practice they perfected in 2012 by reserving their ad time earlier than their GOP opponents. No, on this rainy day in their Georgetown office, the staff of six was trying to decide whether to spend $800 to fix an Apple computer that one of them had accidentally doused with a bottle of water.

Pros for fixing it: The intern needs a computer, and it might be the cheapest option out there. Cons: What about that mysterious Mac mini sitting in the other office -- can't an intern use that one?

In a sense, this is a start-up organization. It has only been three years since super PACS came into existence with the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling, and Democrats were slow to embrace these PACS. And yet House Majority PAC, the one quibbling over 800 bucks, raised $35.6 million to elect Democrats to the House ion 2012. In doing so, it helped bring the Republicans' outside spending advantage down from 3-to-1 in the 2010 cycle to 1.5-to-1 in the 2012 cycle. And the PAC is already at it again.

While most of the country is looking forward to a year off from elections, House Majority PAC already has 10 Republican incumbents in its crosshairs for 2014, and it is neck deep in the South Carolina special election that pits former Gov. Mark Sanford against political newcomer but well-connected Democrat Elizabeth Colbert Busch.

Just today the group came out with a new ad in which a Republican woman says she can't trust a man who "skipped town to be with his mistress on Father's Day."

Once something of an identity crisis for the Left, the Democratic super Pac has become a largely accepted reality. One that House Majority PAC Executive Director Alixandria Lapp says doesn't seem to bother her fellow Democrats the way it once did.

"I think there's no question now that we have a track record," Lapp said. "People now understand the value of what we do. One of the big messages I tell donors is that it's our job to inform voters about the problems with the Republicans. If you want our Democrat to be able to be positive and to defend themselves, someone else has to be going negative on the Mike Coffmans or Gary Millers."

And when she wants to convince skeptical donors of the efficacy of television ads, she'll point to a commercial from Tea Party superstar Allen West that aired last year against now Democratic Rep. Patrick Murphy. Yes, she'll point to the enemy's playbook.

The ad opens with a satellite image of Texas dubbed over with the gruff intonation from a narrator:

Fort Hood, Texas. Lt. Col. Allen West had just received deployment orders, and prepares his men to go to war. That night, South Beach, Miami. Patrick Murphy is thrown out of a club for fighting. Covered in alcohol and unable to stand. Murphy then confronts and verbally assaults a police officer. Patrick Murphy was arrested and taken to jail. Two men, a country in crisis -- you decide.

After the ad ran, House Majority PAC commissioned a poll with an open-ended last question: "What do you know about Patrick Murphy?"

According to Lapp, nearly 50 percent of respondents mentioned the arrest. "So when people ask if TV ads matter, I can point to that and say, yeah, they really matter," Lapp said.

Fortunately for Murphy, he didn't have to take the attack sitting down. He spent nearly $4.5 million on his campaign, to which House Majority PAC added $2.4 million. Their most effective ad accused West -- who did not support stem-cell research -- of turning his back on a Florida family whose child suffered from cerebral palsy. When Murphy won by less than 1 percentage point, he cited that ad as helping him move the dial.

When West lost, Democrats celebrated the defeat of a loudmouthed conservative. They had few qualms about having to rely on so much outside money. It's partially why today members of House Majority PAC don't seem all that torn about exploiting the system the same way their opponents do.

"What's interesting is the dance we all do," Andy Stone, the PAC's communications director, tells me after the staff meeting. "We can't coordinate on strategy with groups like [the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee], but we essentially coordinate in plain view."

A good example, he said, was the Arizona special election to fill former Rep. Gabby Giffords's seat. When House Majority PAC saw that DCCC had reserved TV spots for weeks one, two, five, and six, it was a clear sign that it should fill the gaps.

"During the election cycle, we have someone look through independent expenditures each day," Lapp continued. "We see everything that our allies, like D-trip who we can't talk to are doing. The number of times we said, 'So and so did what in a House race?' was almost never."

Inside this office, these Democrats don't feel like it's a foregone conclusion that Republicans will always hold the cash advantage. And here, unlimited contributions aren't a dirty word.

When Stone and Lapp were asked whether in a perfect world they would overturn the Supreme Court's decision on Citizens United, their responses were telling.

"Yeah, we're not going to answer that."

"No, we're not."

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Ben Terris is a staff reporter for National Journal.

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