In the dog days of summer, before many Americans were tuning into the midterm elections, the leading Democratic super PAC dedicated to winning the House convened a giant meeting with dozens of outside groups.
That laid the foundation for an unprecedented coordination effort among Democratic independent expenditure groups that spent over $200 million in more than 70 House races, overwhelming Republicans and helping deliver a Democratic majority.
At the August meeting, House Majority PAC staffers passed out binders with race information, public TV reservations and examples of direct mail already circulating in specific districts. And most importantly, they pointed out the gaps — the places they needed other independent expenditure groups to jump in.
“It’s almost like an auction,” said Charlie Kelly, executive director of HMP, with different groups laying claim to spending responsibilities for different weeks on radio, TV, digital and mail. Kelly likened HMP’s role to playing “air traffic control.”
It’s the reason why HMP was created: to coordinate the vast army of Democratic outside groups to ensure there’s no duplicative spending in any one place. Veteran Democratic operative Ali Lapp founded the super PAC in 2011 just after Democrats lost control of the House.
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But HMP knew that this year was going to be different. For starters, it had to build the capacity to accommodate a surge in participation. With the fight for the House the Democrats’ only real way to register their opposition to President Donald Trump, interest in House elections among activists and donors was high. HMP and its affiliated nonprofit Patriot Majority USA raised $113 million compared to the $58 million they raised and spent in 2016.
There was also an explosion of grassroots organizing on the ground. The result was an unprecedented number of progressive groups coordinating on the Democratic side, most of which rallied around a central message across both working-class and suburban districts — health care.
Even outside groups that have their own niche found ways to make the Democrats’ health care message part of their paid communications. An ad from the League of Conservation voters in Iowa, for example, attacked GOP Rep. David Young for trying to cut environmental regulations, pointing out the health risks of increased pollution. It then tied that threat to Young’s vote for the Republican health care bill, which would have weakened protections for people with pre-existing conditions.
As a super PAC, HMP can legally coordinate with other independent expenditure groups, but not with the campaigns or the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. It involved the IE sides of these other groups — such as EMILY’s List, LCV, the Environmental Defense Fund, Priorities USA, VoteVets and various labor organizations — early on in its weekly calls about specific races and in broader conversations about its research and polling to figure out where Democrats should be investing.
Right after Labor Day (“Week 9” in campaign lingo that counts back from Election Day), HMP and these groups started their big wave of spending. “It was our shock and awe moment,” Kelly said.
Picking their spots
Through communication between the different groups — from their political shops to compliance teams — spending was structured to avoid redundancies in the same district.
Democratic polling in June showed a good opportunity in Michigan’s 8th District, which Trump had carried by 7 points. So the various groups set about divvying up the responsibility of touting Democrat Elissa Slotkin while attacking Republican incumbent Mike Bishop. HMP’s polling suggested that contrasting her public service career with Bishop’s time in politics could be effective.
The super PAC went up in the ninth week in the Lansing market with a spot laying out that contrast. VoteVets went up in Week 6, followed by Women Vote!, the independent expenditure arm of EMILY’s List, in Week 5 in the Detroit market. HMP ran separate ads in Lansing and Detroit in the final weeks, with Independence USA closing in Week 2. The DCCC was also spending here, which was public information HMP could see. By the end of the race, which Slotkin won by nearly 4 points, Democrats had run 32,000 gross ratings points in the district compared to about 17,000 for Republicans, according to data from HMP. (A gross ratings point is a metric used to determine the size of an ad’s target audience.)
The super PAC undertook similar coordination efforts in districts across the country.
Illinois’ 14th District didn’t start as one of the most competitive races. But HMP’s early polling suggested there might be a chance to make it one. The super PAC continued to do benchmark polls through the fall, and by mid-September, it found that GOP Rep. Randy Hultgren was only ahead of Democrat Lauren Underwood by 2 points.
Women Vote! was doing mail, while HMP started a cable TV buy beginning in Week 5. By mid-October, HMP’s polling showed a tied race, with both Hultgren and Underwood at 46 percent. Combined with Women Vote! and Priorities, HMP started an expanded digital program. It then went up on Chicago broadcast, partnering with the American Federation of Teachers and the Black Economic Alliance to target African-American voters. Independence USA came in at the end on Chicago broadcast, allowing HMP to focus on cable. Independence USA ran what’s known as a dual track — one positive spot for Underwood and one negative spot against Hultgren — for the final 10 days. Underwood ended up winning by nearly 4 points.
Howard Wolfson, who runs Independence USA, admits he was a bit nervous about how so many outside groups would coordinate on so many House races.
“The last thing you’d want is people not talking to each other and duplicating efforts and not going in somewhere else,” he said.
But Wolfson said that never ended up being a problem, in large part because of constant communication. He estimates he was talking to Kelly from HMP three times a day.
“There was a time at which he was my first call of the day and last call at night,” he said.
Eventually, it became more efficient for Wolfson to move into HMP’s offices, where he remained for the final days of the election.