The Declining Relevance of Parties

After two years of almost nonstop bad electoral news, Democrats have a golden opportunity to pick up a Republican-held House seat in upstate New York. Republicans, meanwhile, face the unpleasant prospect of losing a district they've held for generations, something that would allow Democrats to claim political momentum sped by the unpopularity of the details of the House-passed fiscal 2012 budget spearheaded by House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis.

So why have both parties been so reluctant to invest in New York's 26th District?

The flurry of independent expenditures this week, which eventually forced both sides into the race, began with American Crossroads, an independent organization that in 2010 spent more than $70 million on behalf of GOP candidates. And that tells us a ton about who really drives political decisions in Washington.

Crossroads will spend about $650,000 over the final two weeks of the election, according to Democratic sources tracking their ad reservations. The group, led by former Republican National Committee Chairman Mike Duncan and GOP strategist Karl Rove, said Tuesday it would spend $350,000 this week alone--a massive sum for the district's small markets.

Hours after Crossroads purchased ad time, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee said it, too, would spend $250,000 this week.

Before Tuesday's actions, Democrats claimed their involvement in the race included directing nearly $100,000 to Erie County Clerk Kathy Hochul's campaign. But directing money means they're passing on contributions, rather than making their own expenditures. And make no mistake, they once saw the race as winnable; in 2008, when GOP Rep. Tom Reynolds retired, Democrats spent $1.2 million in direct independent expenditures to try and win the seat.

Republicans had done more for their nominee, Assemblywoman Jane Corwin. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, spent Monday fundraising for Corwin, and the New York Republican Party has spent money on mailings. Still, the National Republican Congressional Committee has not spent money on its own independent ads.

Complicating the contest is a third-party candidate, Jack Davis. Running under the tea party label, although tea partiers reject his candidacy, Davis is spending his own money and taking a chunk of Corwin's base.

Republicans have targeted Davis, pointing out he ran for Congress as a Democrat just a few years ago.

Both sides' reluctance to get involved, observers say, is the product of several factors. First, the parties would have to spend hundreds of thousands, if not millions, to move the needle at a time when both committees are strapped; both the DCCC and the NRCC owe $8 million in debt, and their cash on hand is anemic.

Second, by participating, both sides encourage observers to take larger lessons from a single local election. If Democrats play and lose, they perpetuate a narrative that the country still hates them; if Republicans spend and lose, they risk giving Democrats evidence the Ryan budget is an albatross.

Third, there's a strong chance any investment will be lost in 2012. New York loses two seats in redistricting; Democrats and Republicans are each likely to suffer one loss. The 26th, which lies between Buffalo and Rochester, is the GOP district most likely to be eliminated.

But the fourth reason both sides are reluctant has to do with the new reality in Washington: The party apparatus is no longer the Beltway big dog. Instead, outside groups that specialize in winning elections are taking that role.

After the and Citizens United court decisions enabled the proliferation of virtually unregulated political cash, outside groups that spend only on independent expenditures have filled in where party committees fall short. On the right, American Crossroads and the American Action Network spent millions on House and Senate races in 2010.

Democrats struggled to respond last year, but this cycle the party is more seeking to level the field. The House Majority PAC will raise millions to target Republicans; they've already spent about $100,000 on radio ads in some districts. Priorities USA, run by two veterans of the Obama White House, will spend big bucks on Senate contests. And American Bridge 21st Century will focus on building opposition research to pass along to the media.

Outside groups that make independent expenditures have become a Washington cottage industry all its own. Some top campaign operatives are forgoing a chance to work for party committees, contributing to a professionalism in an area that heretofore had been the domain of a few consultants with wealthy friends and extra time on their hands late in an election cycle.

The external organizations have an appeal to donors who want to see their money spent well. Party committees have to spend money on overhead, office buildings, large staffs and other mundane things. Outside groups spend a far greater percentage of their funds on actual television ads, mailings, and get-out-the-vote drives than do party committees. What's more, those donors can write checks of any size to outside groups, while they find themselves more limited in what they can give to party committees.

Winning New York's 26th District could give either side a needed public relations boost. But neither party committee has the financial resources or the inclination to take on such risk to get involved. Instead, their silence has spoken volumes about the state of play, one in which neither party will be in full control of their own message.