"Super PACs" and tax-exempt advocacy groups -- on track to spend roughly $1 billion on federal races, an unparalleled sum -- are poised to expand their influence even further.
Amid the white-hot final weeks of this election, outside groups are already plotting their next targets: the year-end battle over the federal budget, the 2014 congressional races and a possible fight over the next Supreme Court nominee.
"Our goal was to build an enduring institution on the conservative side to counter the outsized power of organized labor on behalf of Democratic causes and candidates," said Steven Law, president of the super PAC American Crossroads and its nonprofit sister, Crossroads GPS.
Independent groups are now cementing their status as permanent fixtures in the political firmament, with resources that rival those of the official parties. That's particularly true on the political right, which has seen the rapid development of several networks of GOP-allied groups -- many of them financed with undisclosed contributions.
One locus of power is Americans for Prosperity, a Virginia-based free-market advocacy group backed by Charles and David Koch, brothers who made billions in chemicals, refining and other industries, and who are major patrons of conservative causes.
AFP, which is on track to spend $180 million in the 2012 cycle, is set up as a tax-exempt social welfare organization that does not have to report its donors. The group, which works with allies such as 60 Plus and Concerned Women for America, is planning to train its resources on members of Congress during the looming budget showdown.
"I do think this will be seen as a watershed year when parties were not as strong as they have been in previous cycles," said AFP President Tim Phillips. "Now groups like AFP have significant financial resources and massive grass-roots networks that in many ways mirror the party. We are going to beat up on bad guys, and we are absolutely going to hold accountable Republicans."
Another nexus of influence: the two Crossroads organizations, guided in part by veteran Republican strategist Karl Rove. Crossroads GPS plans to be active around the "fiscal cliff" debate over automatic tax increases and spending cuts slated to occur at year's end. And if Mitt Romney wins the White House, it will help promote a "first 100 days" agenda. Meanwhile, American Crossroads is working on an initiative to better coordinate the resources of its allies, which include the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Americans for Job Security, a business-backed nonprofit.
"The center of the strategic universe has shifted from the parties to the PACs," said Mark McKinnon, who served with Rove as a top strategist for President George W. Bush. "It gives some of the smarter minds in politics, like Karl, a new laboratory to experiment outside and beyond the political committees."
The growing clout of pro-GOP groups has spurred a political arms race, with liberals scrambling to expand their own super PACs even as they decry the influence of big money in politics. Leaders of Democratic-allied groups said they still want to see the system reformed. But absent a change in the law, they plan to be even more active in the coming years.
"To the extent that Crossroads isn't going anywhere, AFP isn't going anywhere, and they will have programs in the midterm elections, then I don't think we can cede that ground even for a second," said Rodell Mollineau, president of American Bridge 21st Century, a super PAC founded by conservative-turned-liberal activist David Brock that provides opposition research for the left. "You have to fight with all the tools you have."
Along with the 2014 congressional races, American Bridge plans to dive into gubernatorial races and state legislative elections.
"We're taking a couple weeks off around the holidays, then we're going back into it," Mollineau said.
Though outside organizations such as unions have long exerted influence in national politics, their role dramatically increased after a series of court rulings in 2010 led to the creation of super PACs. Those groups can pool unlimited amounts from donors, as long as they don't coordinate with candidates or parties. At the same time, tax-exempt nonprofits stepped up their political activities, emboldened by the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, which allowed corporations to engage in campaigns directly and make unlimited political expenditures.
Outside groups are emerging as "shadow political parties," said Republican election law attorney Michael Toner. Some are even taking up the kind of get-out-the-vote organizing that has traditionally been the domain of the official party organizations.
But not all of the groups have the same aims as the parties. AFP, for example, would not hesitate to target Republicans "if they were to go off the rails again on spending and economic freedom," Phillips said.
That makes the political landscape not only much more crowded, but much more complicated.
"Most of those folks are responsible, but clearly there is risk with so many super PACs," said Mississippi-based GOP political strategist Henry Barbour, noting that party officials now must contend with well-funded outside groups on their turf. "There are a number of additional significant stakeholders who are driving paid messaging. How do you deal with that?"
Party officials note that they still perform many functions that outside groups cannot, including coordinating their advertising with candidates - getting a discount on airtime in the process - and mustering massive field operations. The Republican National Committee is spending hundreds of millions on its get-out-the-vote program, which employs 600 people around the country.
"They can't do what we can do," RNC Chairman Reince Priebus said. "We can do more with our money than any other entity. They have not affected our ability to operate and be functional."
But because donations to outside groups are not capped, they have one major advantage over the parties, which can accept only up to $30,800 a year from an individual.
As of Saturday, outside groups - many fueled by seven-figure donations from wealthy contributors - reported having pumped at least $675 million into political ads and other forms of voter outreach in 2012 federal elections. That's more than double the amount outside groups spent in the 2008 cycle, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.
And this cycle's total doesn't include tens of millions of dollars worth of "issue ads" that ran early in the campaign, paid for by tax-exempt groups that were not required to report them.
The gusher of money has led to renewed calls -- especially by conservatives -- to abolish the contribution limits to political parties so they are not overshadowed by outside groups.
"I'd much rather have that money flow to candidates and parties, so it's very apparent to the public that you were responsible for your own ads," said Rep. Dan Lungren, R-Calif., who introduced legislation this year to roll back nearly all federal contribution limits.
The RNC has pressed the same issue in the courts, filing a suit this summer that would abolish the cap on the combined total an individual can give to party and candidate committees, set at $117,000 for the 2012 cycle. After a U.S. District Court dismissed the case last month, the RNC appealed it to the Supreme Court.
"I do think the national parties should have the same ability to raise money," Priebus said.
Campaign finance reform advocates scoff at the idea that unshackling the limits on donations to parties would diminish the role of independent groups.
"Really, all you're doing is opening up yet another avenue for yet more money to come in," said Meredith McGehee, policy director for the Campaign Legal Center, which defends campaign finance laws. "And you're doing it through an avenue that the courts have repeatedly recognized raises the potential for conflict of interest and corruption."
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