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How To Oust A Congressman, SuperPAC-Style

Nov 23, 2012
Originally published on November 23, 2012 1:53 pm

After spending millions of dollars in the presidential and Senate campaigns with little to show for it, many superPACs and other outside groups are still tending their wounds. But it's too soon to write off superPACs as a waste of wealthy donors' money.

Consider, for instance, this upset in a congressional race outside Los Angeles.

U.S. Rep. Joe Baca was first elected in 1999 in what's called the Inland Empire, a group of counties east of Los Angeles. Baca wasn't a shoo-in this year because of redistricting; thanks to California's new election laws, he was facing another Democrat, state Sen. Gloria Negrete McLeod.

Late in the race, Baca seemed to have the edge, having spent about three times as much money as Negrete McLeod.

Then came a TV ad that proclaimed: "In the Inland Empire, an important congressional race and a choice. In Congress, Joe Baca sided with polluters, voting for a dirty water bill while we have toxins in our water. For Congress, Gloria Negrete McLeod, on our side."

The spot covered Los Angeles airwaves — something the candidates couldn't afford to do. It had come from a superPAC funded by Michael Bloomberg, New York City's billionaire mayor.

Baca lashed back, calling the ad "gutter politics at its worst" during a news conference on the busy street in front of his headquarters. "Mayor Bloomberg has never been to our communities, and he wants to dictate who will represent us in Congress," he said.

But that was just four days before the election, and early voting was already well under way.

Bloomberg — who is neither Democrat nor Republican, but an independent centrist — launched Independence USA PAC just 2 1/2 weeks before Election Day. His third term as New York mayor is winding down, and his focus is shifting to national politics, with education reform, marriage equality and gun control his core issues.

Howard Wolfson, a longtime aide to Bloomberg who guided the superPAC, said they were looking for "the right race and the right set of circumstances."

The first thing they wanted was a clear contrast between the candidates on an issue of real concern, such as guns. Wolfson said Baca, a Blue Dog Democrat, had gotten high ratings from the National Rifle Association.

Another measure of the right race was one that wouldn't be on everybody's radar.

"We deliberately chose a race that had not been targeted by others. We didn't want to be in the middle of a crowded field. We wanted to stand out," Wolfson said.

And if the race was a sleeper, without much outside money, there probably wouldn't be much inside money, either. Wolfson said it meant that "we would have a big impact, based on our ability to go on television versus the candidates' inability to go on television, from a financial standpoint."

Besides the high-priced TV buys, Independence USA PAC mailed fliers across the district that went after Baca on guns. The superPAC spent about $3.3 million on the race — nearly three times as much as both candidates combined.

On Election Day, Negrete McLeod beat Baca with 56 percent of the vote.

In a morning-after analysis for TV, columnist Dan Bernstein with The Press-Enterprise newspapers in the Inland Empire said, "There's probably one man in America, in this campaign, who cared about gun control. And it's Mayor Bloomberg."

Bernstein added: "Here he comes with — I call it Hurricane Bloomberg — $3 million to basically turn a race upside down."

Not all of the Bloomberg superPAC picks turned out so well. Wolfson says they had four wins and three losses overall. They spent more than $8 million.

But professor Jessica Levinson, who follows campaign finance issues at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, says the Baca-Negrete McLeod race was a textbook example of how superPACs are changing American elections.

"Those who fear superPACs look at this and say, 'This swung the election. This is exactly what we were worried about,' " Levinson says.

It's also something that other political strategists can study for 2014.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

Hurricane Sandy is presenting funding challenges here in Washington, as well. The Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA, says the National Flood Insurance Program is looking at an estimated six to $12 billion in claims from Sandy. But the agency is also still carrying close to $18 billion of debt from the cleanup after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. It now needs to turn to Congress to get permission to borrow more.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Many of the bills for this past election were paid by wealthy individual donors. Many superPACs and other outside groups they funded appear to have little to show for the millions of dollars spent in the presidential and Senate campaigns, especially on the Republican side. But it's too soon to write off the superPACs as a waste of wealthy donors' money. NPR's Peter Overby has this look at an upset in a congressional race outside Los Angeles.

PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: Democratic congressman Joe Baca was first elected in 1999 in what's called the Inland Empire, counties east of Los Angeles. This year, he wasn't a shoo-in. His district had changed, and thanks to California's new election laws, he was facing another Democrat, State Senator Gloria Negrete McLeod. But late in the race, Baca seemed to be in the lead, with three times as much money as Negrete McLeod. Then came this...

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL ADVERTISEMENT)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: In the Inland Empire, an important congressional race and a choice. In Congress, Joe Baca sided with polluters, voting for a dirty water bill while we have toxins in our water. For Congress, Gloria Negrete McLeod: on our side.

OVERBY: The TV ad covered Los Angeles airwaves, something the candidates couldn't afford to do. It had come from a superPAC 2,800 miles away.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL ADVERTISEMENT)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Independence USA PAC is responsible for the content of this...

OVERBY: A superPAC funded by New York City's mayor, billionaire Michael Bloomberg. The congressman lashed back.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

REPRESENTATIVE JOE BACA: This is gutter politics at its worst.

OVERBY: Baca held a press conference on the busy street in front of his headquarters. It was just four days before the election. Early voting was already well under way.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

BACA: Mayor Bloomberg has never been to our communities, and he wants to dictate who will represent us in Congress.

OVERBY: Bloomberg is an independent centrist, not a Democrat or a Republican. His third term as mayor is running down. And as he turns to national politics, his core issues are education reform, marriage equality and gun control. Just two and a half weeks before Election Day, he launched the superPAC.

HOWARD WOLFSON: You have to identify the right race and the right set of circumstances.

OVERBY: Howard Wolfson described what the right race and the right circumstances would look like. He's a long-time aide to Bloomberg, and he guided the superPAC. The first thing they wanted for the "right race"...

WOLFSON: There was a clear contrast between the candidates on an issue of real concern.

OVERBY: That would be guns, among other issues. Baca's a blue dog Democrat. Wolfson said he had gotten high ratings from the National Rifle Association. Another measure of the "right race": it wouldn't be on everybody's radar.

WOLFSON: We deliberately chose a race that had not been targeted by others. We didn't want to be in the middle of a crowded field. We wanted to stand out.

OVERBY: And if the race was a sleeper without much outside money, then there probably wouldn't be much inside money, either. And that meant...

WOLFSON: We would have a big impact, based on our ability to go on television versus the candidates' inability to go on television, from a financial standpoint.

OVERBY: Besides the high-priced TV, Independence USA PAC mailed fliers across the district. They were about guns. Joe Baca is failing to keep us safe, they said. Joe Baca is not on our side. The superPAC spent about $3.3 million, nearly three times as much as both candidates combined. On Election Day, Negrete McLeod beat Baca with 56 percent of the vote.

DAN ERNSTEIN: There's probably one man in America in this campaign who cared about gun control, and it's Mayor Bloomberg.

OVERBY: This is Dan Bernstein, a columnist for the Press Enterprise newspapers in the Inland Empire. He was doing morning-after analysis on a TV show produced by the paper.

ERNSTEIN: Here he comes with, I call it Hurricane Bloomberg, $3 million, to basically turn a race upside down.

OVERBY: Not all of the Bloomberg superPAC picks turned out so well. Wolfson says they had four wins and three losses overall. They spent more than $8 million. But Professor Jessica Levinson, who follows campaign finance issues at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, says this race was a textbook example of how superPACs are changing American elections.

JESSICA LEVINSON: Those who fear superPACs look at this and say this swung the election. This is exactly what we were worried about.

OVERBY: It's also something that other political strategists can study for 2014. Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.