The Democratic Party's decision to marginalize groups like Blue Pelican marks one of its most important actions this midterm cycle, and one that is central to its plans to retain control of the Senate next year. In the absence of the kind of billionaire backers Republicans rely on — industrialists Charles and David Koch, for example — Democrats say they can't afford to allow niche groups that won't spend the money wisely or, even worse, that represent little more than glorified scams to separate donors from their money.
But it is a move that has left these independent operators stunned, and concerned that Democrats are going to lose out as the age of 501(c) groups and super PACs marches on. "The approach that we don't share anything with anybody, I understand why they do it," said Chao. "It worked in the old world. I don't think it's going to work in the new one."
Blue Pelican's experience isn't unique. Two others PACs that Chao tried to help — Delta Diamond PAC in Arkansas (formed to support Sen. Mark Pryor) and Wolfheel PAC in North Carolina (for Sen. Kay Hagan) — raised even less than cash than Pelican's $20,000. A group Chao isn't associated with, the Lexington-based We Are Kentucky, has raised more money, over $300,000, but still hasn't been able to afford TV ads in the Senate race between Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes and Republican Mitch McConnell, a battle that's already featured millions of dollars' of paid media from the campaigns and other outside groups.
Even ostensibly independent, state-specific efforts, like the Mark Begich-allied Put Alaska First, receive the overwhelming majority of their funding directly from Senate Majority PAC. There are exceptions, such as the billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer's proposed $100 million-dollar midterm operation, but even NextGen Climate Action, while defying the implicit guidelines of Democratic third-party action, is playing nicely by avoiding red states were his anti-coal message would backfire on Democrats.
The Democratic approach is strikingly dissimilar from the super PAC strategy promoted by Republicans. Indeed, if Democrats are focused on growing a few well-cared-for plants, and weeding everything else out, the GOP's approach is akin to letting a thousand flowers bloom. Republicans and their allies run multiple outside groups, each with its own agenda — multimillion-dollar organizations such as American Crossroads and Americans for Prosperity that are mingling with a varied collection of tea-party organizations and single-state super PACs.
The reasons are many. Democrats contend that Republicans simply have more millionaires and billionaires willing to fund outside-group efforts. Plus, the confrontation between establishment Republicans and their tea-party rivals has given rise to a legion of groups with different agendas in the GOP, a process yet to be replicated among the more ideologically in-sync Democrats.