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Top Spending PAC Aims To Keep The Senate In Democratic Hands

NPR, October 2, 2014

Host: Audie Cornish

Click here to listen.

We're going to shift now to politics. For months, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has made a sport of bashing billionaires David and Charles Koch for donating millions to tax-exempt groups pushing to win back Republican control of the Senate. But it turns out the biggest spending outside group in this election cycle isn't the Koch brothers; it's a super PAC with ties to Senator Reid. NPR's Peter Overby reports.

Peter Overby: The consultants who run Senate Majority PAC say they have just one goal, keeping the Senate in Democratic hands. To do that, they've spent $33 million so far. That puts Senate Majority PAC at the top of the list according to Federal Election Commission data as analyzed by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. Ty Matsdorf is Senate Majority PAC's campaigns manager.

Ty Matsdorf: If he talked to pundits 12-months ago, they would have said, you know, Democrats would be marching towards historic losses.

Overby: And they'd list the reasons - President Obama's sinking poll numbers, the traditional anti-administration tilt to second-term elections, all the races happening in red states.

Matsdorf: But if you look at every sort of battleground Senate race, it's either tied or Democrats have a slight lead.

Overby: Not exactly the analysis Republicans would give, but most of the races are close. Senate Majority PAC began the cycle by doing what Democratic candidates wouldn't do. Democratic consultant Michael Meehan points out that candidate campaigns want to hoard their money until - well, until right about now, late in the race.

Michael Meehan: Senate Majority PAC went in early and heavy and where many vulnerable incumbents are, particularly in the South, North Carolina, places where the race matured much sooner than I've seen in any other cycle.

Overby: In North Carolina, Senate Majority PAC has been on the air since last December. It spent roughly $9 million. In Alaska, another tight race, the group didn't get directly involved. Instead it gave $5 million to a state PAC which spent it to help Democratic Senator Mark Begich. Rob Jesmer is a Republican consultant in Senate campaigns.

Rob Jesmer: I thought that was pretty smart. They knew that their brand would not be well-received in Alaska.

Overby: Senate Majority PAC can do all this because it's got a golden touch with donors. Its top consultants have ties to Senate Majority Leader Henry Reid. Maybe this isn't a surprise, but its disclosure list is a who's-who of wealthy liberals - the top three, billionaire Tom Steyer, longtime Democratic donor Fred Eychaner and former New York City mayor, Michael Bloomberg.

Sheila Krumholz: This is really the only show in town for the major money.

Overby: That's Sheila Krumholz, director of the Center for Responsive Politics. She says it underscores the flawed legal logic by which super PACs are not supposed to be just big-money extensions of the party organization. Again GOP consultant Rob Jesmer.

Jesmer: That group benefits from being known as the de facto Harry Reid PAC, and we don't really have that on the Republican side.

Overby: After watching Senate Majority PAC this cycle, it's probably something they're thinking about. Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.

Read full article: NPR, October 2, 2014