The unofficial race for the White House is being fought in a 12th floor suite of a building wedged between a Starbucks and a cross fit studio, five minutes' walk from the Oval Office.
There are no signs, no advertisements — no clue, really — that this is the nation's most powerful super PAC, except for a small gray nameplate next to two closed wooden doors and a keypad lock:
If you don't know them by name, they probably prefer it that way. The groups would not let a reporter inside last week.
But in Florida, you've no doubt seen their work on TV.
The woman sitting at a kitchen table. "Mr. President, here's what I want to know: Where are the jobs you promised? The trillions you spent — where did it all go? What's there to show for all of that new debt? And if we're in a recovery, why are we making less?"
The man in front of the virtual chart. "This is what President Obama said the jobless rate would be if we passed the stimulus: 5.6 percent."
And now, Clint Eastwood. "In the last few years, America has been knocked down. . . . We need someone who can turn it around fast, and that man is Mitt Romney."
Born out of a landmark 2010 Supreme Court decision that allows corporations to donate unlimited amounts of money to advocate for or against a candidate, and the idea of Republican political strategist Karl Rove, American Crossroads has cemented itself as the country's preeminent super PAC.
The Crossroads groups say they will spend $300 million this cycle attacking President Barack Obama and Democrats in Congress, including $10 million targeting U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson.
"American Crossroads was built as an enduring institution on the conservative side to counter the outsized power of organized labor on behalf of Democratic causes and candidates," spokesman Nate Hodson explained recently.
"That's totally bogus," said Michael Podhorzer, political director with labor union AFL-CIO, which supports Obama and Democrats, who have super PACs, too.
"Campaigns are not pristine, but they take it to a completely new level," Podhorzer said. "What they do is shameful. They have completely skewed how elections are done."
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The money American Crossroads is spending in Florida, almost all on television, is staggering.
In October alone, the group booked nearly $867,000 worth of airtime on Tampa's four network affiliates — ABC, NBC, CBS and FOX — according to records kept by the Federal Communications Commission. (Cable ad purchases aren't regulated by the FCC and therefore are not public.)
The group is spending similarly on the four networks in the Orlando television market.
This week, Crossroads said it would spend $2.1 million in the state to air ads featuring Eastwood and Obama's ties to China.
On top of that, the group already has plunked down $190,000 to reserve time on Tampa's ABC affiliate during the final week of the election.
It has similarly reserved $228,000 worth of airtime on Orlando's NBC station.
In Tampa, Crossroads is paying $18,000 for a 30-second commercial during ABC's Dancing with the Stars, $15,000 for 30 seconds of airtime Monday night during the World Series on FOX and $1,400 for a commercial during CBS's The Young and the Restless.
If the prices sound high, they are. While the FCC requires that candidates receive deep discounts for airtime near an election, third-party groups like Crossroads have to pay the market rate for their advertising. That keeps them largely out of the high-cost Miami market, but few other places.
The ads themselves are almost entirely negative and blur the line between truth and fiction. PolitiFact, the fact-checking website of the Tampa Bay Times, has rated 30 statements in advertisements made by American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS. The results — two statements rated True; one rated Mostly True; eight Half True; 12 Mostly False; five False; and two Pants on Fire.
While voters typically say they don't like attack ads, they are effective, said Frank Alcock, a political science professor at New College of Florida.
What's more, American Crossroads is shielded from any political fallout because it is largely anonymous.
"There's no negative side to it," Alcock said of the attack ads. "They're not running for anything. They're protected."
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So who is American Crossroads?
For all the money they raise, the Crossroads groups are relatively small — employing about 20 people. Rove, former adviser to President George W. Bush and the person most associated with creating the organizations, helps fundraise for American Crossroads and serves as an adviser. He is not paid.
Some of the groups' contributions are required to be disclosed by law. Many are not.
Crossroads' budget of $300 million is within $33 million of what John McCain spent running for president in 2008.
By law Crossroads must operate independently of Romney's presidential campaign, but connections between the two are ubiquitous.
Crossroads' political director, Carl Forti, served as Romney's national political director during his 2008 presidential campaign. In this cycle, he helped launch the pro-Romney super PAC, Restore Our Future.
Both Crossroads and Restore Our Future use Mentzer Media of Towson, Md., to buy advertising, and Romney and Crossroads both use Targeted Victory of Alexandria, Va., to purchase digital advertising.
Crossroads' biggest supporters also overlap with donors to Romney and the pro-Romney super PAC, including Texas businessmen Harold Simmons, Bob Perry and Robert Rowling — who combined have donated more than $35 million to GOP causes.
At the other end of the spectrum are smaller donors like Clay Caldwell, a 62-year-old Pinellas County Republican.
Caldwell made two $100 online donations to American Crossroads this year and says he has contributed to Republican causes from Romney on down.
"I'm a free enterprise kind of guy. That means I don't care who gets money," Caldwell said. "If somebody supports the liberal agenda and they have a way to do it through their PACs, that's what America is built on. You send money to your PACs, I'll send money to my PACs. That's what makes our country strong.
"Crossroads doesn't weaken our country. It expands the debate. It expands the conversation."
That's not a sentiment shared by Sen. Nelson, who besides Obama is the main target of American Crossroads' Florida campaign.
The group's most anti-Nelson ad focused on land Nelson owns in Brevard County that receives an agricultural tax exemption.
The exemption saved Nelson more than $44,000 on his property tax bill last year.
If he returns to the Senate, Nelson said he will attempt to revive a proposal to require full disclosure of all sources of campaign contributions of $10,000 or more.
"I think the people are sick of it," he said.
The idea is that if groups like American Crossroads or Democratic-super PACs like Priorities USA were required to reveal their big corporate donors, the companies might not give in the first place — for fear of alienating their customers or clients.
"We're going to try," Nelson said. "I've talked to a bunch of Republican senators who realize this may be to their advantage now, but they realize that shoe can be on the other foot."
Times/Herald staff writer Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report. Contact Aaron Sharockman at [email protected]
Employees work out of a Washington office for American Crossroads, a super PAC that was created in 2010 by Republican strategist KARL ROVE.
Earmarked to a campaign to defeat Florida incumbent U.S. SEN. BILL NELSON, who supports a law that would force super PACs to disclose donors.