Super PACs, nonprofits fueling GOP strife

Conservatives attacking Republicans accounts for 20 percent of ad spending this year

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As the Republican Party marches toward a tea party vs. establishment brawl, or even hurtles toward political civil war, conservative super PACs and nonprofits are helping bankroll the journey.

One in five dollars spent by all super PACs, nonprofit groups and the like on election advocacy came from identifiably conservative groups attacking Republican congressional candidates, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of federal campaign disclosures covering Jan. 1 to Feb. 28.

Liberal political groups, in contrast, didn't spent a dime roughing up Democrats during this time, focusing their efforts exclusively on promoting Democrats or bashing Republicans.

In all, conservative groups spent more than $2.3 million on negative ads targeting Republican candidates, according to FEC records.

That's more than the $2.1 million conservative groups spent overtly advocating against the election of Democratic candidates.

Their activity also represents a dramatic shift in political strategy from the same block of time during 2010 midterm elections, when conservative organizations didn't spend cash attacking GOP hopefuls at all, federal records from the time show.

Then, political groups were just making sense of the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision that the Supreme Court dropped in late January 2010. It allowed corporations, unions and certain nonprofits to raise and spend unlimited amounts of money to advocate for or against candidates.

Overall, the money that outside political groups have invested in "independent expenditures" — messages that either promote or pummel a federal political candidate — has increased exponentially from four years ago.

Collectively, these organizations spent just $1.92 million in January and February of 2010, as Democrats and Republicans fought for control of Congress, much of which focused on the special U.S. Senate election in Massachusetts that Republican Scott Brown ultimately won.

This year, groups have spent about six times that amount — about $11.6 million, federal records show.

While some of this money is targeting candidates in special elections such as the one in Florida's 13th Congressional District, where Republican David Jolly faces off with Democrat Alex Sink next week, most is flowing into partisan primaries.

Conservative groups attempting to defeat Republican candidates fit several profiles.

First, there are the tea party-affiliated organizations.

Super PAC FreedomWorks for America, for example, is campaigning against Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., who faces a tough GOP primary fight with state lawmaker Chris McDaniel. It's also attempting to defeat Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., while favoring conservative businessman Matt Bevin in the Bluegrass State's GOP primary.

"If Republicans really want to win races, they need to focus on policy more, and it's a mistake to think that people will rally around their guy just because he's a Republican," Russ Walker, national political director for FreedomWorks for America, told the Center for Public Integrity. "I don't worry about the criticism. For us, it's about the agenda and the ideas candidates put forward, and we back candidates based on that."

Super PAC Club for Growth Action, meanwhile, spent more than $317,000 in January and February campaigning against Cochran, whose record on taxes and financial matters it has incessently bashed.

Asked if he's concerned his organization is weakening the Republican Party’s odds of a successful 2014 midterm election, Club for Growth spokesman Barney Keller simply said, "no." But he indicated his group's advocacy against certain Republicans is only limited to primary season, not the general election.

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, is all but assured to win another term. But that hasn't dissuaded the Tea Party Leadership Fund, which advocates "taking down the establishment," from trying. It's already spent $178,000 on anti-Boehner radio, online, billboard and direct mail ads, its campaign filings indicate.

Establishment-minded, candidate-specific conservative committees are also blasting other Republicans.

A prime example is the Mississippi Conservatives super PAC, which has pushed against Club for Growth Action and FreedomWorks for America by spending $342,000 to skewer McDaniel.

Another is Texans for a Conservative Majority, a hybrid PAC formed to defend Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, against a primary challenge from Rep. Steve Stockman, R-Texas.

It executed its mission with aplomb, spending nearly $1 million in January and February against Stockman, who Cornyn easily defeated Tuesday. Late Republican super donors Bob Perry and Harold Simmons provided much of the organization's funding.

Florida's 19th Congressional District race has also birthed a candidate-specific super PAC that Fox 4 News in Fort Myers, Fla., reports is closely tied to Republican candidate and state Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto. The committee, called the Liberty & Leadership Fund, has already spent $60,000 on ads targeting fellow Republican candidate Curt Clawson ahead of an August primary.

Furthermore, the right-leaning U.S. Chamber of Commerce, among the nation's most deep-pocketed political forces, has jumped into the mix.

A 501(c)(6) nonprofit trade association, the Chamber has invested most of the $1.7 million it has spent this year on electoral advocacy promoting McConnell and Jolly, the Republican congressional candidate in Florida, or trashing Sink, Jolly's Democratic opponent.

But on Friday, the Chamber turned on a Republican, launching a television and online ad campaign worth $200,000 against attorney Bryan Smith, a Republican who's challenging Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, in a primary.

"Our ad speaks for itself in outlining our concerns with Bryan Smith’s record and why we are supporting Mike Simpson in the race," Chamber spokeswoman Blair Latoff Holmes said of the ad campaign. "We have said that we will support free enterprise candidates aggressively and early. Our support is predicated on where the candidates stand on a broad range of issues that are important to the business community."

Republicans currently control the U.S. House of Representatives, and at this point, Democrats must win 17 new seats to regain control of it.

Democrats, for their part, control the U.S. Senate, and Republicans must win six seats to regain control of it.