Coleman's outside groups claim credit for GOP hold of US Houseby Brett Neely, Minnesota Public Radio
WASHINGTON — The election is behind us, but the money spent on campaigning is still being counted.
One big spender, especially in Minnesota, was the American Action Network, a Republican-leaning nonprofit group founded by former Sen. Norm Coleman. The group spent at least $2.3 million trying to get first-term Republican Rep. Chip Cravaack re-elected in the 8th District.
While that effort failed, Coleman is claiming credit for other congressional victories.
Leading up to Election Day, residents of northeast Minnesota were bombarded with negative television ads like the one directed at Cravaack's DFL opponent, Rick Nolan.
Ultimately, the ad blitz wasn't enough to overcome the district's strong Democratic orientation. Nolan won by 9 points, though he said it was an upsetting experience.
"You know, I had grandkids coming home from school crying about the terrible things they're saying about Gramps," Nolan said. "It was very, very, very disquieting."
The American Action Network, along with an affiliated super PAC known as the Congressional Leadership Fund that Coleman also chairs, spent at least $24 million on House races all over the country, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Most of that money went toward negative ads against Democrats.
The American Action Network's donors are mostly secret because of the group's nonprofit status.
A WHO'S WHO LIST OF GOP DONORS
Much of the Congressional Leadership Fund's money came from a who's who list of big Republican donors, including casino owner Sheldon Adelson, Texas homebuilder Bob Perry and Donald Trump.
The two groups concentrated most of that financial firepower on 23 House races, winning 15 on election night.
Coleman said his groups, with their focus on maintaining a Republican-controlled House, did well, especially when compared with the hundreds of millions of dollars spent by other Republican outside groups such as Crossroads GPS, chaired GOP strategist Karl Rove. Those groups unsuccessfully tried to take the Senate and White House.
"Our donors are very happy," Coleman said. "They're happy that the gavel is in the hands of John Boehner and not Nancy Pelosi."
This past election was unlike 2010, when Republican groups such as the American Action Network were newly empowered in congressional races because of the U.S. Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, which opened the doors to looser contribution and disclosure rules for groups acting independently of a candidate's campaign.
Republican-allied groups far outspent Democrats then.
But this time, Democrats founded their own big spending outside groups, such as the House Majority PAC, which provided cover for candidates like Nolan in the 8th District.
"They canceled each other out, particularly at the congressional level," said David Wasserman, who tracks congressional races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.
Wasserman said that Coleman's groups appear to have done a good job choosing candidates to back but that it was unclear how much outside groups affected any individual contest.
"What we see is these super PACs going in where their allies need them and then claiming credit for victories that they may or may not have had much to do with when their candidates win," Wasserman said.
He also noted that Republicans had a structural advantage this election cycle because many Republican-controlled state houses across the country were able to redraw congressional districts to favor their candidates. Further, Wasserman said Democratic voters are often concentrated in urban districts.
LITTLE PROSPECT FOR CAMPAIGN FINANCE REFORM SOON
Nolan said overturning the campaign finance free-for-all will be a top priority when he takes office in January.
But as a member of the minority party in the House, it will be an uphill effort without bipartisan support.
Still, despite criticizing the influence of outside groups, Nolan was also a beneficiary of their spending. Liberal groups such as the House Majority PAC spent at least $4.5 million on his behalf.
Nolan said he tried to discourage those groups from running negative ads as much as he could within the bounds of the law.
But Nolan also sounded pragmatic, perhaps even resigned, that he would likely have to raise a lot of money for his re-election campaign.
"If you're interested in election politics in the year 2012 and 2014, you have to play the game by the rules that it's played by," Nolan said.
Outside groups such as Coleman's American Action Network and the Congressional Leadership Fund are also here to stay, cementing Coleman's status as an important party strategist with close access to the GOP's top donors.
Before the election, that status also led to speculation that Coleman might run again for Senate or governor in 2014. Coleman was a U.S. senator from 2003 to 2009.
When asked about his plans this week, Coleman sounded less enthusiastic about running for office again than he had in the past.
"You never rule anything out, but at this point in time it's not close to being top of my agenda," Coleman said.
A few items of the items on that agenda include improving the GOP's outreach to Latino voters and finding a better message for working and middle-class voters.
- Morning Edition, 11/23/2012, 7:20 a.m.