Democrat Bob Kerrey wasn't even a U.S. Senate candidate before he started to get hit on the airwaves by a super PAC affiliated with Republican political operative Karl Rove.
Since then, Kerrey has been the target of more than $2 million in negative television and radio advertisements funded by a pair of deep-pocketed political committees. So far, it's been a one-sided fight, with no Democratic super PAC riding to Kerrey's defense.
As Kerrey and others are learning, candidates may no longer have the luxury of assembling a campaign staff or a war chest before taking fire from outside groups.
“Super PACs are changing the nature of the game ... they're the political equivalent of baseball players on steroids,” said Dennis Goldford, a political scientist at Drake University in Des Moines.
Super PACs are a relatively new phenomenon. The committees grew out of a controversial 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision called Citizens United, which essentially allows wealthy individuals, unions and corporations to spend unlimited amounts of money on campaigns.
This is the first election year that the full impact of the court's decision is being felt in Nebraska and across the country. In many regards, it is forcing candidates to change how they run campaigns. It's also changing the natural cycle of elections.
The era of political campaigns having dog days may be over for both candidates and voters. In previous campaigns, candidates spent summers raising money to fund fall advertising blitzes.
But with the influx of super PAC dollars, voters can expect to be inundated by political ads from now until the election.
In addition, comparing political war chests to measure a campaign's strength against rivals is less important now than when candidates' funded most ads. Today, whether a candidate has the backing of a wealthy super PAC may matter more than how much a candidate has raised.
Las Vegas casino mogul Sheldon Adelson and his family have given $31 million this year to super PACs that support Republican presidential candidates Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich.
“These days, a super PAC can come in and, literally, dump millions for you or against you. That money can come in from one or two individuals, and they can just drown out a candidate who has raised money from a broad base (of support),” said Kevin Smith, a political scientist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
Finally, super PACs allow campaigns to become far muddier, as out-of-state committees and anonymous donors are allowed to go negative with impunity.
The law allows no coordination between campaigns and the outside groups, but super PACs allow a candidate to maintain a positive message and let the super PACs do the dirty work of negative ads.
“You can let the independent groups do the really negative, nasty stuff and you can remain above the fray,” Goldford said.
Over the past two years, about 500 super PACs have been formed, spending more than $124 million this election cycle — double what outside groups spent in 2008, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
One clear impact in the Midlands is how early the ad wars began and that they're still going.
Iowans have been bombarded with television ads in the presidential contest between Republican Mitt Romney and Democrat Barack Obama — proof of Iowa's swing state status. And Nebraskans are still seeing super PAC ads for the Senate race between Republican State Sen. Deb Fischer and Kerrey.
“You'd think this is October rather than June, with the number of ads we're seeing in Iowa — Romney ads, Obama ads and independent groups,” said Goldford.
Kerrey has been the focus of most super PAC ads in Nebraska. A former governor and U.S. senator from the state, Kerrey began to flirt with a potential run early this year after having lived the last dozen years in New York City.
Before his bid became official, the Republican-aligned group known as American Crossroads started running radio advertisements against Kerrey that labeled him a “New York liberal.”
American Crossroads, founded by Rove, is one of the biggest super PACs active in this year's election. This year alone, it is expected to raise and spend more than $200 million nationally, including a small chunk in Nebraska. Since January, American Crossroads has spent $520,000 on Nebraska television and radio ads hammering Kerrey.
Americans for Prosperity is another GOP-aligned group spending heavily against Kerrey. The group, funded by billionaires Charles and David Koch, has spent more than $1.4 million this year on anti-Kerrey ads.
Both groups hope to help Republicans recapture the White House and gain control of the Senate.
The idea behind the early hits is to take Kerrey out before he can either catch fire or raise enough money to hit back. Their goal: a head start on negatively defining his candidacy, said Goldford.
Kerrey in the first quarter of this year raised $900,000 and managed to put up nearly $1 million in television ads during a primary season in which he ran essentially unopposed. So far, he has been unable to afford more ads, ceding the airwaves since mid-May to his opposition.
“As soon as someone emerges as a possible threat, you just basically — in the rhetorical sense — nuke him. It's hard to have a second chance to make a first impression if that first impression is defined by the opposition rather than the candidate,” said Goldford.
So far, no Democratic super PACs have ridden to Kerrey's rescue.
“We've been taking incomings for months now,” said Paul Johnson, Kerrey's campaign manager. “We were on TV during the primary for a number of weeks, but there is no force on our side that is the equivalent.”
There are Democratic super PACs but, clearly, Republicans have a super PAC edge in this year's election cycle.
Seven of the top 10 super PAC donors so far this election cycle have supported Republicans. All were individuals and either millionaires or billionaires.
Only two Democratic-leaning organizations made the national list compiled by the Center for Public Integrity and both were unions: AFL-CIO and the National Education Association.
Many Democratic donors oppose the idea of super PACs and have been slow to support the new committees, said Johnson.
“Democrats like George Soros have been pretty generous in terms of giving money, but the bottom line is that I don't think the Democrats have the equivalent of the Koch brothers — people who are in the upper reaches of the 1 percent who are willing to drop millions of dollars,” said Smith, of UNL.
Kerrey this week told online news outlet Slate that Democrats need to stop complaining about the Citizens United decision and start playing by the new rules.
“Progressives don't understand power,” he said. “They tend to talk more about ‘How do we make life fair?' And as a consequence of being concerned about fairness, they're not in this game.”
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