The midterm election is Tuesday, and big money, in the form super PACs and political nonprofits, has fully moved onto the turf that used to be the sole purview of political parties — not just advertising, but organizing and messaging, too.
A super PAC called NextGen Climate Action is bankrolled by billionaire Tom Steyer, and it has spent more than $5 million in Iowa alone. Some of that money has paid for, but Josh Fryday, the group's chief operating officer, says most it has gone toward "field efforts."
“We really made a big effort to focus our resources into building a grassroots infrastructure on the ground,” he says.
According to Steve Grubbs, a Republican political consultant based in Iowa, other outside groups have been doing the same thing.
“The job of campaigns and candidates has largely been outsourced,” he concludes. “When I was state party chairman of the Republican Party of Iowa, all of the vote-by-mail or absentee-ballot programs, and get-out-the-vote, were generated through the state parties, maybe some of the candidate committees or local parties.”
These days, super PACs and nonprofits do that kind of work, and some of them take the lead. Outside groups are building huge databases, and they are developing new tools to target voters. “I do think, if I were chair of a party, I would have some significant concerns about it,” Grubbs says.
What's caused this, he argues, is candidates and state parties can't compete. There are restrictions on how much they can raise and how much they can spend. That is not the case for groups like Americans for Prosperity, a conservative nonprofit that has spent half a million in Iowa.
But Scott Brennan, the chair of the Iowa Democratic Party, says he has never run into anyone from any of the big outside groups, including Americans for Prosperity.
“I'm sure AFP is not targeting the same people that the Iowa Democratic Party is targeting,” he says. “But the bottom line is they are not an enormous presence here.”
Tim Hagle, a political science professor at the University of Iowa, is on a lot of mailing lists, including the Americans for Prosperity list. He said a recent message from Mark Lucas, the group's state director, bragged about AFP’s ground game, 35 paid staff, five field offices, and so on.
Hagle wonders what the growth of super PACs and nonprofits portends for parties.
“You do have to be careful of the downside of relying on some outside group,” he says. Parties could get rusty, he says. They could find themselves outmatched.
Jim Nicholson used to chair the Republican National Committee, and he says what worries him is parties have lost control of the message: “They – whoever they are – can do and say, you know, whatever that want.”
Nicholson is from Colorado, where $67 million dollars worth of outside money has flowed into the state’s U.S. Senate race. Seth Masket, who chairs the political science department at the University of Denver, says "the ads are pretty constant."
“My impression is that most voters can't necessarily distinguish between an ad run by a candidate and one run by some unaffiliated interest group,” Masket notes.
The race for governor in Colorado is also tight, and it illustrates Masket's point beautifully. The two candidates agreed not to go negative, but that doesn't mean voters aren't inundated with attack ads.
According to Masket, we are witnessing politics evolve. “All of these groups are essentially part of a larger party network, or an informal party,” he says. Even if they can't coordinate, parties and sympathetic outside groups are on the same page. And there may be an upside to all this money, being spent on getting out the vote: More Americans may vote.