This Super PAC Founded by Democratic Money Could Back a Republican in 2016
One of the largest Democratic Super PACs steered money in the recent campaign cycle toward a smaller, newer Super PAC that could support Republicans in the future, underscoring the evolution of such outside groups from mostly proxies for the national parties to a crowd that's less predictable.
Federal Election Commission reports show that the Democrats' Senate Majority PAC gave $3.5 million between August and October to Put Alaska First, a group created by strategist Jim Lottsfeldt to help re-elect Mark Begich, the Democratic junior senator from Alaska. Put Alaska First, in turn, spent around $3.6 million on ads supporting Mr. Begich in October alone.
The outcome doesn't look good for Mr. Begich; although Alaska's Division of Elections is still counting outstanding ballots, Republican Dan Sullivan has the lead. But now that it's established, the Super PAC that championed the Democratic candidate may go the other way next time around, using data-driven tactics it honed in this year's contest.
Mr. Begich is a former client of Mr. Lottsfeldt's Lottsfeldt & Associates, a nonpartisan political consultancy. Mr. Lottsfeldt has also welcomed Republicans into his big client tent, including Senator Lisa Murkowski and former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin.
"We could be supporting a Republican in 2016," Mr. Lottsfeldt said. "We'll just wait and see."
First he must decide whether to keep the young organization intact at all. "That is a decision for the next couple of weeks," he said. "Since I'm new to Super PAC-land I have to think about how one does that."
In all, Mr. Lottsfeldt said the organization spent around $10 million on TV, direct mail, radio and online ads. The group sent lots of mail to Alaska voters, using publicly-available voter data in conjunction with Civis Analytics, the firm founded by Dan Wagner, the 2012 Obama campaign's chief analytics officer, and backed by Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt. Civis helped segment voters into groups that were expected to "overperform" in support of Mr. Begich.
The targeting was instrumental to the group's direct-mail efforts, which were handled by Democratic direct-mail firm Ambrosino Muir Hansen Crounse. But the increasingly important practice of targeting TV ads to certain voter segments based on data did not apply for Put Alaska First, Mr. Lottsfeldt said, in part because the group wanted to reach voters in sparsely-populated rural areas with limited TV options.
"People think you can [do targeted TV advertising] but in Alaska you can't in a sense that it's a small population," he said.
The majority of the organization's ads opposed Mr. Begich's rival without mentioning Mr. Begich. Unlike many large outside groups on the right such as Americans for Prosperity and American Crossroads, "we didn't nationalize the election," Mr. Lottsfeldt said. "We did almost the opposite: We Alaskan-ized."
"These are Alaska's resources," a voiceover says in one TV spot that ran late in the campaign, as images of a fuel pipeline and silvery fish flash on the screen. "But out-of-state interests want more of our share and they're backing Dan Sullivan."
In October, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce spent $1 million on TV and digital ads; half of the money went towards ads supporting Mr. Sullivan and half to ads opposing Mr. Begich.
While Mr. Lottsfeldt said Put Alaska First did not coordinate at all with the Begich camp, he did discuss founding the organization with Mr. Begich before its creation. (Mr. Lottsfeldt and Mr. Begich are friends from childhood.)
"I went to him two years ago and I said, 'Hey, let's look at re-election,'" he said, adding that he was worried about groups from outside the state trying to influence the race. "All this big money is gonna come, so, what I think I should do is start a Super PAC," he said he told Mr. Begich.
Independent expenditure groups such as Put Alaska First are required to remain separate from campaigns of the candidates they support. The last time Lottsfeldt & Associates worked with Mr. Begich was in 2006, when he successfully ran for re-election as mayor of Anchorage.
The fact that Senate Majority PAC -- a staunch supporter of Democrats -- funded an organization that calls itself "nonpartisan" on its website, and was founded by a self-described "committed non-partisan" may seem odd. But Mr. Lottsfeldt suggested party devotion isn't necessarily important for political consultants in Alaska.
"My firm works on both sides of the aisle," he said, noting that he has worked with Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski and with Sarah Palin during her successful bid to be the state's governor. The non-partisanship of his firm, he said, is "unusual in most states, but I get away with it."
Senate Majority PAC did not respond to requests for comment.