WASHINGTON — The midterm election campaign will end Tuesday, but one of its most marked developments — the emergence of outside groups, often backed by anonymous donations, that can direct waves of advertising into political battles — is just getting started.
Buoyed by the impact their blistering, anti-Democratic campaigns have had this year, two of the largest new conservative groups helping Republicans are planning to keep pushing their agenda in the lame-duck session of Congress that will begin in two weeks and are already laying the groundwork for a more aggressive campaign in the 2012 presidential race.
That development is causing Democrats to reassess their early financial plans for President Obama’s re-election campaign while forcing them to balance the administration’s demands for more transparency in campaign finance against the pressure for liberal groups to do more to counteract the strength of their conservative counterparts.
Officials with the two conservative groups, American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS — which are on track to spend well over $50 million combined this year, a sizable part of it from undisclosed donors — said they would continue advertising against Democrats as Congress returns, when decisions loom on the extension of the Bush-era tax cuts and immigration.
Robert M. Duncan, the chairman of American Crossroads, which, like Crossroads GPS, was started with help from the Republican strategists Karl Rove and Ed Gillespie, said he also informed major donors late last week that “research and development” was under way to make the groups even more effective in the next election, part of a pitch for continued investment toward a larger goal.
“It’s a bigger prize in 2012, and that’s changing the White House,” Mr. Duncan said. “We’ve planted the flag for permanence, and we believe that we will play a major role for 2012.”
Mr. Duncan’s statement verified what Democrats have said they feared: that the major Republican independent groups have viewed the 2010 electoral terrain not as a final battlefield but as a proving ground for 2012.
And advocates for tighter campaign finance restrictions say they fear the groups’ plans for such an active role over the next two years are likely to open the door to a flood of new special interest money in presidential politics on both sides, as Democrats begin publicly calling on their big-money donors to consider responding in kind.
“If this is what the playing field is going to look like, then we need to play to win,” said Gov. Edward G. Rendell of Pennsylvania. Saying that “people are talking about it already,” he added that those talks “will begin with a lot more intensity after Election Day if we get beaten badly.”
Whatever the outcome of Tuesday’s elections, American Crossroads, Crossroads GPS and a consortium of other new arrivals on the political scene gave Republicans something Democrats largely did not have this year: a professionally run set of agile and extremely well-financed groups working outside the campaign finance system with a narrowly focused agenda of defeating the opposition.
The two sides agree that should the donations continue to roll in as Mr. Duncan says he expects, his organization and its allies will be in a position to pummel Mr. Obama and his party with advertisements throughout the Republican primary season.
That would provide a potent first wave of attack while the Republican candidates focus on fighting one another for the right to challenge the president. It would also allow the national Republican Party to hoard its cash for the general election and put pressure on the Democratic National Committee to spend some of its war chest.
It is a reversal from six years ago, when Democrats and liberals set up a network of independent groups that raised and spent hundreds of millions in donations from unions, corporations and wealthy individuals to help the presidential campaign of Senator John Kerry against his better-financed rival, President George W. Bush. (Those groups, however, were generally set up as political committees that had to disclose their donors’ identities under the tax code.)
In 2008, Mr. Obama’s campaign eschewed that network, directing the party’s top donors away from its member groups, many of which have since withered. Flush with a huge cache of small donations from his base of individual supporters, Mr. Obama boasted of a “new kind of politics” that did not rely on money from “special interests.”
This year, the president was even more outspoken after the Supreme Court decision that loosened restrictions on corporate and union political spending, declaring at his State of the Union address in January, “I don’t think American elections should be bankrolled by America’s most powerful interests.”
That has left Mr. Obama in a quandary when it comes to encouraging or receiving support in the future from liberal groups that are financed by similarly powerful interests.
But, in interviews, political advisers to the president said the Republican activity this year would force a second look at their approach immediately after this fall’s election results are tallied, when the presidential campaign season informally begins.
The White House has been focused on passing the so-called Disclose Act, proposed legislation that would place new limits on interest groups trying to influence elections by restricting corporate spending in some instances and requiring new levels of disclosure over all.
But, speaking on the condition of anonymity because they did not want to engage in a public dialogue on the matter when they were so focused on Election Day, strategists for Mr. Obama said they were intent on avoiding a situation in which they would have no answer to millions of dollars — if not tens of millions — in advertisements from groups like Crossroads and Crossroads GPS.
While the Democrats continue to have powerful allies in organized labor that are able and willing to spend tens of millions on their behalf, the unions have their own agendas with hundreds of thousands of members to answer to, and they are generally not as freewheeling or nimble as groups like Crossroads or, for that matter, the now mostly inactive liberal groups of the past like the Media Fund and America Coming Together.
In an e-mail exchange, David Axelrod, a senior adviser to Mr. Obama, declined to discuss any future plans. But, referring to what he called special interests that “have driven a huge truck filled with undisclosed cash through a legal loophole to try and buy this election,” he wrote, “is it any surprise that this same, stealthy crowd will try to move on to the White House next? Whatever the outcome Tuesday, this issue is not going away.”
Candidates, their campaigns and the political parties are prohibited from coordinating with any independent groups trying to help them in elections, so the White House is in no position to actively engage in setting up such efforts. Some are already in place — like Commonsense Ten, a liberal political committee that has had a late uptick in fund-raising — but they have not had the same level of financing as their conservative counterparts.
Democratic fund-raisers said a more robust effort would require some sort of public sign that the administration would look favorably upon such activity, or at least not speak out against it.
“The White House needs to send some signal that they would welcome broader and deeper and heftier participation by Democratic donors who can do that, and that certainly has not been the atmosphere so far,” said Harold M. Ickes, a deputy chief of staff in the White House of President Bill Clinton who went on to spearhead the independent efforts to help Mr. Kerry.
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