House Speaker Paul Ryan may be fleeing Congress rather than run for re-election, but his super PAC won’t be giving up control of the House without a big, messy, and very expensive fight.
The initiative by the Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC aligned with Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), now includes 34 offices running mini-campaigns for vulnerable Republicans throughout the country. It has built its own in-house research and data teams and recruited 4,000 student volunteers, who have knocked on more than 10 million doors since February 2017.
The operation far eclipses the group’s activity in any previous election, when CLF didn’t have a single volunteer or field office. At this time last election cycle, the group had raised $2 million. As of Tuesday, CLF — which markets itself to donors as a super PAC dedicated to saving the House majority and can collect contributions with no dollar limit — had hauled in more than $71 million.
That spending increase is no accident, but a conscious decision to turn the super PAC into an artificial Republican ur-campaign. Rather than pumping money into individual House Republican campaigns, the CLF will run their own campaigns on behalf of—but (cough) “uncoordinated” with—vulnerable Republicans, complete with phone banks and neighborhood door-knockers and other pseudo-grassroots efforts, but without being encumbered with the same rules the campaigns themselves have to deal with. A super PAC can take all the money they want from secret donors, for example, which means the group can provide yet another avenue for billionaires to purchase their own preferred candidates in the manner that our very intelligent and hep-to-the-times Supreme Court insists is of no great consequence.
What they’re doing is interesting, and seems to be based in large part on what we will call, as glib shorthand, the Russian model.
While the group’s new in-house research team digs for negative information on Democrats, its data department polls key swing districts to identify issues that high-propensity swing voters care about most. Then the group sends its volunteers to talk to those voters in person, armed with literature and talking points touting what GOP incumbents have done to advance those causes.
“Asking you who you are voting for this far out is meaningless,” Bliss said. “If you tell us what the two things are that you care about most, we should be able to get you.”
Forget sweeping ads intended to target 100,000 voters at once; instead, find the small set of voters who care very much about one particular issue and go convince them one-by-one, with a script tailored just for that.
The $71 million-and-counting question is whether this new CLF approach, combining the sort of microtargeting of voters that Cambridge Analytica, Steve Bannon, and the Russian government made famous in 2016 with an effort to contact voters much farther out from the election day, will have enough impact to stave off a potential Republican catastrophe in November. We cannot say that it won’t—not after 2016. And it’s more likely to be effective than $71 million worth of shouting television ads of the sort that voters have learned to tune out.
Say what you want about the group, but they’re not dumb. And they’re not hurting for cash, either. Not by a long shot.