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Independent groups expected to rake in hundreds of millions

By Jessica Yellin and Kevin Bohn, CNN
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Outside groups' influence in 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Democratic third-party groups aim to raise up to $200 million in outside money for 2012
  • Democrats say they were trounced by GOP-aligned third-party groups in 2010 races
  • Groups grew after Supreme Court ruling allowing unlimited contributions by corporations
  • Conservative insists labor unions already help Democrats dominate outside spending
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Washington (CNN) -- As President Barack Obama kicks off the 2012 money race with a series of well-publicized re-election fundraisers in Chicago, Democratic operatives are quietly crisscrossing the nation to raise big money for new independent expenditure groups.

All told, these Democratic third-party groups aim to raise up to $200 million in outside money -- that's in addition to the $1 billion Obama's fundraisers set as their campaign goal. The number and size of the independent expenditure groups ballooned last year, thanks in part a Supreme Court ruling that allows unlimited contributions by corporations.

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There is some irony here: Obama has denounced these secretive third-party groups as tools of "powerful interests that marshal their power every day in Washington to drown out the voices of everyday Americans." But now Democrats say, after they were trounced in the 2010 midterm elections by GOP-aligned third-party groups --- including those founded by Karl Rove and the Koch brothers --- they have no choice but to join them.

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Monica Dixon, the executive director of Majority PAC, one of these new groups, says, "We were just outgunned and outmanned last cycle. We didn't do a good job of supporting our candidates against this barrage of money that was spent against them. And so this cycle we are engaged. We are going to raise the money to defend our candidates against these attacks."

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Among the new Democratic groups are four SuperPACS, which are expected to be up and running by the end of this month. They are:

• House Majority PAC, which launched this week, is focused on helping Democrats regain control of the House of Representatives. It's run by three strategists previously involved in House campaigns and is planning ads that target vulnerable Republicans during the April congressional recess.

• Majority PAC was put together by some of the Democratic Party's most seasoned Senate campaign operatives. It will focus on ensuring that Democrats keep control of the Senate. They've begun raising money and choosing targets. Their goal, one operative says, is to start defining Republicans early in the cycle.

• A group dedicated to supporting Obama's re-election bid will open later this month. Helmed by former White House deputy press secretary Bill Burton and Sean Sweeney, former top aide to ex-Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, it aims to compete with American Crossroads --- the Rove-founded group --- which plans to raise $120 million this cycle.

• And a fourth group, American Bridge 21st Century, will provide opposition research and communications for Democratic races for Congress and the presidency. Founded by conservative-turned-liberal activist David Brock and chaired by former Maryland Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, it has a more far-reaching goal. In a statement to CNN, Rodell Mollineau, its president, says he hopes hopes to build the group "into an enduring political research and communications powerhouse."

Chris Harris, spokesman for American Bridge, tells CNN, "We are investing in a massive war room so we can define (GOP) candidates before they define themselves."

Organizers say the groups -- which are banned from coordinating with the campaigns -- are working with one another. Sources familiar with their plans tell CNN that American Bridge aims to raise $20 million to $30 million, the Burton-Sweeney presidential effort would try to raise $120 million, and in order to be competitive, Majority PAC would need to bring in $50 million to $100 million. There are no early projections for House Majority PAC's numbers.

Steven Law, president of the conservative outside group American Crossroads, insists that Democrats already dominate outside spending -- thanks to labor unions. "For years now the unions have perfected the art of doing outside campaign ads, outside voter turnout activity," Law said, adding, "We created American Crossroads to be a counterpoint to what the unions and other groups like Moveon.org have done very effectively for the last several elections."

He predicts liberal groups will outspend conservatives this cycle. But Democratic fundraisers laugh that off, saying Republicans can raise far more money from deep-pocketed donors.

Apparently, it's a race to lower expectations.

Many new Republican-aligned groups popped up last election, including the American Action Network, supported by top Republican fundraiser Fred Malek and former Sen. Norm Coleman on its board.

Other major players on the conservative side: the Chamber of Commerce, Americans for Prosperity and the Club for Growth, all of which made major investments in the midterm campaign ads against Democratic candidates.

American Crossroads and affiliate Crossroads GPS is the behemoth on the scene. Co-founded by Rove, it raised $71 million and in its first year last cycle and saturated the airwaves in some hotly contested campaigns. For the coming election, it says it hopes to raise $120 million. The group tells CNN within weeks it will air ads related to the federal budget fight.

"This is one election where literally everything is at stake: the White House, the Senate majority, the House majority and even the courts for potentially a generation so everybody's very engaged and interested. And they want to continue to play and hopefully affect the direction of the country in a positive way," American Crossroads' Law says.

One independent conservative group last weekend started airing a commercial in some key battleground states critical of the president. The spot, titled "Barack Obama's Legacy of Failure," was sponsored by the Campaign to Defeat Barack Obama.

Conservative group puts out anti-Obama TV ad

A number of these groups on both sides of the aisle are affiliated with highly secretive organizations known as 501(c)(4) groups ( a reference to their designation in the tax code), which don't have to report their donors to the Federal Election Commission.

Groups not directly affiliated with political parties accounted for $298.5 million in political spending during the 2010 midterms, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks the influence of money in politics.

This time around, expect even more.

"The numbers will dwarf the roughly $300 million in outside spending we witnessed in 2010. The only question that remains is, by how much?" said Dave Levinthal, a spokesman for the center.

CNN political research director Robert Yoon contributed to this report.

 
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