Democrats got a glimpse at their nightmare scenario Tuesday as Wisconsin Republicans teamed up with billionaire donors to bombard the airwaves with campaign advertising. But the party and its allies are divided over which path to take as they forge ahead: Focus their resources on ground operations, or divert money to playing catch-up on TV and radio.
Gov. Scott Walker benefited from a legal loophole that allowed him to raise unlimited money until the recall was formally set into motion. Ultra-wealthy GOP donors like Bob Perry and Sheldon Adelson donated six figures or more directly to Walker’s campaign. Walker’s opponent, Democrat Tom Barrett was behind from the start and never came close to making up the gap. Democrats were ultimately outspent by more than 7-to-1.
And there’s nothing preventing the same moneyed men from bankrolling Republican candidates around the country under post-CItizens United campaign finance laws.
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka acknowledged Wednesday that the spending disparity, including the GOP’s advantage on advertising, was disturbing. But he said labor would focus its money on turnout and voter registration efforts, and less on beating Republicans in media buys.
“Is our emphasis going to be on raising money and doing ads? No,” he said. “Our emphasis is going to be on educating and mobilizing workers, both union and non-union workers, at the grassroots level.”
Trumka’s not alone in his thinking. A group of wealthy Democratic backers, including George Soros, is planning to pump as much as $100 million into the general election strictly to fund registration and outreach. Labor officials say their grassroots operations will be more effective than previous elections, since new rules tied to the Citizens United decision also free them up to expand outreach to non-union workers.
But Democrats were already squarely focused on the ground-game to the run-up to the recall, and Walker’s win prompted some sober post-game assessments. Nor are things going to get any easier: Democrats are already being hugely outspent in key Senate races, and groups like American Crossroads plan to match Obama’s own ad buys dollar for dollar en route to a potential $1 billion-plus spending binge. Sufficiently rattled, Democrats on Wednesday began to admit: The barrage of negative ads was their undoing in Wisconsin.
DCCC Chairman Steve Israel, tasked with managing Democrats’ congressional campaigns and reclaiming power in the House, put out a blunt official statement all but begging progressive elites to get into the game or risk an electoral wipe-out.
“The Wisconsin results should serve as a wake-up call for Democrats: On-the-ground organizing is critically important, but it must be coupled with an aggressive air campaign,” Israel said. “I’ve long said that Republicans didn’t beat Democrats in 2010, Karl Rove and the Koch brothers did after the Citizens United decision. Democratic allies and donors should not allow that to happen again this cycle. Democratic groups won’t outspend Republican groups, but they can keep us in the fight.”
A Democratic strategist told TPM that “Democrats are deluding themselves if they think they can door-knock their way past a billion dollars in right-wing money.”
Obama campaign manager Jim Messina, another operative who credited outside money with tipping the balance, called the recall fight a “terrifying experiment” in a letter to supporters.
“This kind of corporate and special-interest spending is exactly what we could be up against this fall,” Messina wrote.
The advertising issue is all the more urgent as big-money conservative groups showed signs in Wisconsin that they may be able to compete when it comes to ground-level operations as well. Americans for Prosperity sent 60 staffers to Wisconsin to help with turnout while other groups like American Majority Action hit the streets with the latest technology to track and reach out to sympathetic voters.
Wisconsin’s state GOP boasted nearly 5 million voter contacts as part of its own coordinated effort with the RNC, a number that spokesman Ben Sparks said was already a huge improvement on 2 million in the 2010 race. Despite labor’s success in pushing turnout to 57 percent with their robust volunteer operation, a number not out of line with a presidential election, Walker still won handily as the Republican base came out in kind.
“They probably have the best program money can buy,” Trumka told TPM of conservative outside groups’ operations. Still, Trumka said he didn’t attribute the loss to their turnout campaign: “I think they haven’t caught up on the grassroots level, and hopefully we’ll learn enough and get better enough that they never will.”
A silver lining for Democrats heading out of Wisconsin is that there’s little evidence President Obama is seriously threatened, even after Walker’s win. Exit polls and pre-election polls still show the president in good shape there and partisans on both sides say a large factor in Walker’s win was that a large number of likely Obama voters were disgusted with the recall process itself.
“I don’t think anyone says this will completely change the game for the presidency, or the Senate race for that matter,” Brendan Steinhauser, campaign director for FreedomWorks, told TPM.
Still, Republicans are excited that they have a fully functioning operation ready six months ahead of the general election that they can immediately put to work. And even if winning the state is an uphill climb, they’re confident they can at least force Democrats to divert resources to a state that should have been theirs all along — Messina recently surprised observers by listing it as a “tossup” state.
“This is a state where they’ll have to spend money now, and it takes their eye off the ball … maybe a couple of months ago they didn’t think they’d have to,” RNC spokeswoman Kirsten Kukowski told TPM.
Even if the presidential election looks less frightening, Wisconsin still offers up a terrifying prospect for downballot races, where a few million dollars in last-minute ads could easily shake up an otherwise sleepy House race or tip the balance in a tight Senate race. It’s a situation made all the more dire by the fact that anti-labor laws passed by governors like Walker diminish union membership and resources, giving Democrats even less help in future elections. Groups connected to the Koch brothers alone reportedly have pledged $400 million for this year’s general election, more than John McCain raised for his entire 2008 campaign. With six months to go and Democratic super PACs raising paltry sums by comparison, Democrats’ early ambitions of retaking the House and holding the Senate may already be an even steeper climb.
Benjy Sarlin is a reporter for Talking Points Memo and co-writes the campaign blog, TPM2012. He previously reported for The Daily Beast/Newsweek as their Washington Correspondent and covered local politics for the New York Sun.