How Super PACs Cut Sherrod Brown's Lead in Half

“I have an opponent who doesn’t have that respect,” says the Ohio Senate incumbent. Robyn Twomey for Newsweek

Today was supposed to be a good day for Sherrod Brown. Scratch that: a very good day. A great day, even. The kind of day that any 59-year-old Yale-educated liberal Democratic incumbent senator from Ohio might dream about between meetings of the Agriculture Subcommittee on Nutrition, Specialty Crops, Food, and Agricultural Research, or whatever it is he does back on Capitol Hill.

The podium is in place. The press has power-walked over from the Columbus Statehouse a few blocks away. The flag of the Fraternal Order of Police hangs from the rear wall, and a dozen cops stand docilely beneath it. They are waiting for the senator to finish working the room. The senator, however, shows no sign of stopping.

“I mean, what’s the deal with Johnny Damon?” Brown asks a reporter, referring to the Cleveland Indians’ aging left fielder. “He can’t hit. He can’t catch. He can’t throw. He’s sort of the five-tool guy ... without any of the tools!” Brown chuckles at his scouting report—then realizes everyone else is silent. “Oh, we’re getting started!” he says. He jogs toward the podium like a puckish schoolboy. “Sorry about that!” But no one minds, of course. Today is just that kind of day, and Brown is just in that kind of mood: a joking-with-reporters mood, a jogging-to-the-podium mood, a gee-whiz-isn’t-life-grand mood. A great mood, in other words. For a great day.

That’s because Brown is about to become the first Democratic U.S. Senate candidate since 1988 to get the endorsement of Ohio’s largest police union—a prize that eluded even John Glenn. With it comes 25,000 potential foot soldiers, a gust of positive press, and the kind of blue-collar cred that every Democrat craves.

For a few minutes, it’s almost enough to make Brown forget his troubles. But then FOP president Jay McDonald steps to the microphone. The burly cop confesses that this “is quite a shift for” his “conservative membership.” Still, he says, the choice was obvious; Brown has “had our backs ... every step of the way.” And now that Brown “is in a fight of his own”? Endorsing him is the least the FOP could do. “Special interests are pouring millions of dollars into defeating Senator Brown this fall,” McDonald says. He closes his eyes and shakes his big head. “All this outside money,” he continues, “just to distort his record.”

Brown fidgets, then stares down at the floor. In a normal year, for a normal Democratic incumbent, the FOP endorsement would be a sure sign of an impending blowout. But 2012 is not a normal year—and Brown is not a normal incumbent. Over the last nine months, spending on anti-Brown television ads by super PACs and 501(c)(4) “social welfare” groups such as the Chamber of Commerce, the 60 Plus Association, and Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS has soared to more than $11.5 million; meanwhile, Brown’s average polling lead over his Republican opponent, State Treasurer Josh Mandel, has been cut in half. The FOP’s support is no longer a cherry atop the frontrunner’s sundae; it’s a shield that’s about to get battered in a very brutal, very expensive battle.

Half an hour later, a slightly less jovial Brown tells Newsweek how he’s really feeling today. “I’m disturbed,” he admits. “If it weren’t for all the outside money, this wouldn’t even be a race.”

Brown isn’t the only Democrat who’s disturbed right now. Since the start of the cycle, President Obama and his surrogates have made a point of bemoaning 2012’s near-biblical flood of third-party cash. In part it’s a ploy to pump supporters for checks; as “Joe Biden” pleaded in a July 30 fundraising email, “We’re running out of time to close the money gap when it really matters. Please donate $3 today.” But it also happens to be true.

We’re in the midst of a perfect storm of secretive spending. After McCain--Feingold banned unlimited, unregulated, undisclosed contributions to the parties themselves, the big bucks began to flow to 527s (the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth) and 501(c)(4)s (the Club for Growth). At that point, there were still some restrictions on how and when the cash could be spent. But Citizens United and a couple of related Supreme Court decisions swept away most of the rules; today, super PACs and social-welfare groups can accept unlimited amounts of money from corporations and individuals and spend it pretty much however they please. The 501(c)(4)s, such as Crossroads GPS and Priorities USA, don’t even have to disclose their donors.

As a result, experts project that overall spending could top $11 billion in 2012, more than double the 2008 total. And because there are fewer pesky legalities this time around—and because loaded Republicans feel far more powerless and persecuted than their Democratic counterparts—conservative groups are expected to drop more than $1 billion on the presidential race alone. When the Joe Biden spam bot warns about “the other side spend[ing] us into oblivion,” this is what he (or it) is referring to.

But there’s a deeper, less familiar story here, too. For all Chicago’s complaining, the impact of outside money on the national contest may wind up being minimal; the polls have been static so far, and after a certain point, there are only so many hundreds of millions of dollars that can be pumped into the Denver ad market. Where the cash could make the biggest difference, however, is on the state level. “Dropping $15 million into the presidential race won’t be determinative,” says Rick Hasen, an expert on campaign finance at the University of California, Irvine. “Dropping $15 million into a Senate race will be a bombshell.”

Under the media radar, vulnerable Senate candidates have spent the last few months getting pummeled by outside attacks. Crossroads GPS and similar groups have spent more than $6.5 million slamming Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill for supporting Obamacare; she currently trails all three of her potential Republican challengers in the polls. In Nebraska, Bob Kerrey has taken roughly $2 million in incoming fire, including an Americans for Prosperity ad set to Psycho-style music. In Florida, billionaire Sheldon Adelson has given $1 million to a pro–Connie Mack super PAC, and Rove’s American Crossroads has reserved $6.2 million in fall airtime.

Still, Ohio is the starkest example of the dystopian havoc that outside groups can now wreak on a race. In theory, the contest shouldn’t be close. Brown has outraised Mandel by $5.1 million. His approval and disapproval ratings are roughly equal; Mandel’s unfavorables outstrip his favorables by a perilous 15 percentage points. This is part of the reason why Brown was drubbing Mandel by an average of more than 13 points as recently as January—even though the populist, pro-Obama senator is far more progressive than the swing state he represents.

But then the super PACs and 501(c)(4)s began to spend on Mandel’s behalf: nearly $12 million so far, or more than Brown dropped on his entire 2006 campaign, with another $7 million reserved for the fall. The number on Brown’s side of the ledger is much smaller: about $3 million from unions, liberal interest groups, and Democratic super PACs. All told, Mandel’s third-party allies have outspent and outreserved Brown’s 6 to 1, and nearly twice as much money has been spent and set aside by or for Mandel than Brown. No other competitive Senate race is this lopsided. In response, the polling gap between Mandel and Brown has shrunk to 7.7 percent, and strategists are beginning to talk of the race as a possible tossup.

Outside FOP headquarters, Brown spokesman Justin Barasky starts to recite some polished anti-Mandel talking points. But he can’t hide his frustration for long. “We beat them on every metric,” he finally blurts out. “But for these outside groups, Ohio has really become a test to see if this kind of money can decide a race. It’s a test to see if the candidate and the campaign even matter anymore.”

After Brown finishes addressing the FOP, he slips into a nearby office to discuss his dilemma with Newsweek. “Mike DeWine and I, we weren’t fans of each other, to put it mildly,” he says, referring to the incumbent Republican senator he unseated in 2006. “But we engaged, we talked issues. I have an opponent now who doesn’t have that respect. And in some ways that’s making it harder to run against him.”

Brown is referring, of course, to Mandel. State and national Republicans have touted Mandel, 34, as the next Marco Rubio, and his résumé is indeed promising: law school at Case Western Reserve University; eight years in the Marines, including two tours in Iraq; Lyndhurst city councilman by age 25; state representative by 29; Ohio treasurer by 33.

The problem is that Mandel’s campaign has not been nearly as impressive. So far, Mandel has earned five “pants on fire” ratings from PolitiFact Ohio, a state record. Brown has one. Until March, Mandel failed to participate in a single meeting of the Board of Deposit, which oversees billions of dollars in state investments; at one point, he was attending a Senate fundraiser in Washington, D.C., instead. In April, the Dayton Daily News reported that Mandel had stocked the treasurer’s office with underqualified campaign staffers. Finally, Mandel decided in May to return $105,000 in suspicious funds after the FBI began investigating a flurry of massive contributions from the working-class employees of a conservative Ohio marketing firm. (The FBI has not implicated Mandel in any wrongdoing.) Throughout, Mandel has dodged tough questions, going so far as to say he won’t take a stand on the auto bailout because he doesn’t “cast imaginary votes.” When Newsweek asked to interview the candidate, Mandel’s spokesman replied that he (i.e., the flack) would “be happy to chat about the topics you’re interested in,” but “Josh is unavailable.”

And yet, thanks to all the attack ads, Mandel continues to close on Brown. As Mandel recently told Politico, “I think the outside spending on the conservative side has been very effective and has helped tighten the race.” In response, a Brown consultant has been calling 35 Ohio TV stations every day to find out whether Crossroads GPS or the 60 Plus Association has purchased more airtime; it’s the only way to keep track of how much they’re spending (and on what). “Ohio is a swing state, so messages that work here tend to work elsewhere,” says political scientist John Green of the University of Akron. “It’s like a focus group. They’re going up early to see which attacks resonate.”

So far, the list includes a Crossroads GPS ad ominously intoning that Brown “supports Obama’s agenda 95 percent of the time”; another that accuses the senator of voting to pay for “reckless spending” with “billions in new taxes”; and a U.S. Chamber of Commerce spot that bashes Brown for opposing oil subsidies and unlimited drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. “The ad says ‘U.S. Chamber,’ but the money’s not from the U.S. Chamber,” Brown complains. “It’s Exxon giving it to the U.S. Chamber. Or it’s the Koch brothers giving it. You don’t know. You just know it’s a lot of it, and that it’s an investment: if they win, they get more tax breaks and weaker environmental laws.”

So how does the guy with the bull’s-eye on his back respond? At FOP headquarters, Brown concedes that he doesn’t have many options. He’s hardly poor, having already raised a record $15 million (with another $5.1 million reserved by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee for the fall). “We will have an adequate amount,” Brown says. “Less than they’ll have, but adequate.” Part of the plan is to make the spending itself an issue—to undercut the incessant commercials by speculating, as he does during the FOP event, that nefarious “oil companies,” “Wall Street banks,” and “Chinese” interests are meddling in the Ohio Senate race because he has opposed their interests in Washington. “Voters are going to start asking, ‘Why are all these people we’ve never heard of spending all this money against [Brown]?’” he tells Newsweek. “I want to put that in people’s minds”—whether he can prove it or not.

In the meantime, Brown’s best option is to campaign more like a feisty challenger than a placid incumbent. (He even knocked Obama last week for landing at a Mansfield, Ohio, air base threatened by the White House’s proposed defense cuts, describing the plan as “penny-wise but pound-foolish.”) Endorsements are key. Before 2011, the FOP had never really engaged in grassroots politics. But when Republican Gov. John Kasich banned collective bargaining, even the police sprung into action, helping to gather a record-breaking 1.3 million signatures and trigger a ballot referendum that eventually resulted in repeal. “We learned what we have to do to impact elections,” says Jay McDonald, who has settled in across from Brown at FOP headquarters. “And we learned that because they made us learn it.”

Brown supported the repeal movement, so when the time came for the FOP to endorse, he sensed an opening. He gave in-depth answers on the union’s questionnaire. He gladly participated in their “screening”: a freewheeling, one-hour conference call with 11 FOP bigwigs. He phoned every screener afterward. He left messages. He called back. He even went to the FOP picnic and pleaded in person for support. “I worked this endorsement really hard,” Brown says. “I won it.”

But will it make a difference this fall?

McDonald leans in, resting his thick forearms on the table. “It will if we go out and talk to our neighbors,” he says. “Now we know the reward that comes with that. A lot of people look down on -public-employee unions. But Officer Smith and Mrs. Jones, the history teacher? They have clout in their communities.”

It’s a quaint vision of politics, especially in the age of Citizens United. But it’s also a reminder that there are still some things money can’t buy—and an election might be one of them.

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