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Independent Expenditure Heads Face Tightrope Act

Senate Campaign Committees Staff Up

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo
The National Republican Senatorial Committee picked Mike DuHaime to serve as its independent expenditures director.

Senate campaign committees tapped two familiar hands to lead their independent expenditures this cycle a high-stakes gig that controls tens of millions of dollars in spending for 2012 races.

But these Senate money managers will confront new challenges this cycle as outside group and super PAC spending increasingly compete for air time.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee hired Martha McKenna as its IE director, while the National Republican Senatorial Committee picked Mike DuHaime to serve as director and Greg Strimple to serve as strategist for its outside spending arm.

The Senate stakes are high this cycle, and party operatives from both sides agree the chamber is in play. Democrats will attempt to protect a 53-seat Majority, while Republicans try to take control of the Senate by winning three or four seats.

Since the landmark McCain-Feingold campaign finance legislation, independent expenditure directors have played a pivotal role in choosing which Senate races receive financial attention. The committees put incredible trust in these operatives because communication is illegal: The committees cannot coordinate with the IE arm, and the IE arm cannot communicate with individual campaigns.

"The party committees raise a substantial amount of money, and the vast majority of those funds get spent on the IE program," said Brian Smoot, the Democratic consultant charged with directing the DSCC's 2010 IE unit. "Since you cannot coordinate with the campaign or the rest of the DSCC, it is important to have a good understanding of each race."

But the role of these IEs has evolved since the Supreme Court's landmark Citizens United ruling in 2010.

For most of the past decade, these IE arms were the best-funded game in town for Congressional races. In 2010, the DSCC spent $40.1 million in IEs and the NRSC spent $25.9 million in IEs, according to the campaign finance disclosure website OpenSecrets.

But in wake of the high court's ruling, anyone can try to contend with the IE's cash largesse by starting a super PAC.

"Obviously, you're not allowed to coordinate with them, but you have to keep your eye on them," said Brian Nick, a former NRSC chief spokesman. "It's a factor that's increasing that didn't exist to this extent a couple cycles ago. Certainly there were some third-party groups, but nothing like the scope of third-party groups now spending at this level."

For example, the conservative American Crossroads and its sister organization, Crossroads GPS, spent more than $40 million on Senate-related advocacy last cycle. This cycle, Democrats launched their own outside IE arm, Majority PAC, to contend with Crossroads' spending blitz.

Much like in previous cycles, both McKenna and DuHaime are familiar faces within their respective committees. The House campaign committees have not yet released who will direct their respective IE units.

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