WASHINGTON — An anonymously funded ad volley Monday targeting Rep. Lois Capps, D-Santa Barbara, kicked off what's likely to be one of California's most hotly contested 2012 campaigns.
The anti-Capps ad also is a foreshadowing of the outsized role that new partisan organizations will play in 2012, at times free of the customary contribution limits or disclosure requirements.
"We're going to see more and more of this, where campaigns are conducted by D.C. groups," said Bill Carrick, Capps' long-time political consultant. "It's not just going to be Lois Capps; it's going to be everybody."
To wit: In North Carolina, nearly identical ads are running against Democratic Rep. Heath Shuler, and in Kentucky they are running against Democratic Rep. Ben Chandler.
Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies produced the 30-second ads, touting them Monday as part of a $1.4 million package targeting 10 House Democrats nationwide. Capps is the only Californian targeted in this opening round.
That's not a coincidence. Republicans see the 73-year-old Capps as vulnerable next year, especially as the San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara County congressional district that she has represented since 1998 gets redrawn.
The latest draft maps drawn by the California Citizens Redistricting Commission suggest the new 22nd Congressional District would be more competitive than the current coast-hugging sliver drawn for Democratic comfort. The Santa Barbara-San Luis Obispo media market also is relatively self-contained and inexpensive, making it an easy place to make a splash.
The Crossroads GPS pieces are called issue ads. They do not specifically urge viewers to vote for or against Capps or the other Democrats. Nor do they urge a vote for a Republican candidate. The tone and message, though, is insistently negative.
"You voted for reckless spending, and how did you pay for it? Billions in new taxes and trillions in crushing debt," the anti-Capps ad declares.
The ads also blast the Democrats for voting on multiple occasions to increase the federal debt ceiling. The ads omit other facts, such as the May 2006 vote in which 218 House Republicans voted for a bill that likewise included a debt ceiling increase.
If the ads were sponsored by a political party or a political action committee, the individual donors who made it possible would be publicly disclosed. Crossroads GPS, though, is a 501 (c)(4) non-profit organization that is required only to report what it spends, and not where the money comes from.
Last year, for instance, Crossroads GPS reported spending more than $14 million. This included spending $328,325 in an unsuccessful bid to topple Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno. Ads targeting Costa have continued after the election, as well.
Crossroads GPS is a spin-off from a legally distinct organization called American Crossroads. The latter, begun with the help of former Bush administration political operative Karl Rove, is a different kind of political creature. Dubbed a "super-PAC," it can raise funds in unlimited amounts but it also must disclose donors.
In April, for instance, campaign records show that American Crossroads received a $2 million contribution from a living trust established by Jerry Perenchio, the former chief executive officer of the Univision Spanish-language television network. Perenchio has long been a major contributor in California campaigns.
Democrats, too, now have taken a page from the same playbook by establishing a super-PAC and a legally distinct 501(c)(4) organization sharing the name Priorities USA. As with their Republican counterparts, the Democrats' super-PAC will raise funds in unlimited but reported amounts while the 501(c)(4) will run issue ads funded by anonymous donors.
"No one is going to unilaterally disarm, so you'll see this on both sides," Carrick said.
One of the Democratic super-PACS, for instance, reported receiving hefty contributions from labor unions and billionaire Democratic patron George Soros.
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