One of the most talked about and controversial ads in Florida in recent years came from a little-known super PAC innocuously named American Sunrise.
The cartoon-style 2012 ad depicted U.S. Rep. Allen West, a Republican from South Florida, in a boxing ring punching women. The point was about health care cuts. But West, who is black, was hitting white women and West decried it as racist. The ad generated loads of TV news coverage, from CNN to Fox and local stations.
That's exactly the result Bill Phillips wanted.
The Democratic consultant started American Sunrise specifically to go after the freshman West, who had made national waves for blunt, often controversial statements. West was defeated by Democrat Patrick Murphy in a nasty, expensive election that attracted $6.5 million in outside spending.
"The role of the super PAC is to take some of the pressure off the candidate to be so negative," said Phillips, who contends his ad was fair as West portrayed himself as a fighter. "It threw him off his game. He spent his time talking about our ad as opposed to his vision for the district."
American Sunrise raised only $354,000 — a modest figure in the outsized new era of big money — but it had a decisive effect on the race. "There's a place for the niche super PAC where you have a handful of donors who want to drive a focused message in a creative way," Phillips said.
The biggest donor to the PAC: Tom Murphy Jr. of Coastal Construction, who gave $250,000, and is Patrick Murphy's father. It's an example of the often cozy ties between campaigns and ostensibly independent outside groups, which are not supposed to coordinate.
Was the anti-West ad racist? Watch it at tbtim.es/5bk.
Americans for Prosperity
Americans for Prosperity stands apart from many outside spending groups that simply unleash TV, radio and online ads.
The conservative organization has built a political machine in Florida, with 10 field offices, more than 40 paid employees and hundreds of volunteers who do regular phone banking and monthly door-to-door canvassing on a wide array of issues.
The operational budget this year is $6 million, a significant increase over the $4.2 million spent from 2010-13. And that does not include millions in TV ads the group has done in Florida.
The precise figure is not clear because the group's spending on "issue" ads does not have to be reported to the Federal Election Commission. AFP is organized as a nonprofit and does not disclose its donors, though billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch are the founders and a major funding source.
The on-the-ground strategy was inspired by labor unions and other liberal groups. "We looked at what the left has done effectively," said AFP president Tim Phillips. "They have been able, over the decades, to build a permanent, powerful infrastructure at the local and state level."
Nationally, AFP has 240 full-time employees in 32 states. It has unleashed tens of millions in TV ads attacking Obamacare and pushing free market, pro-business ideals, with plans to spend as much as $125 million this election cycle.
In Florida, the organization is promoting the policies of Gov. Rick Scott, leaving literature at voters' doors as the November election nears. But it also helped defeat Scott's move to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. AFP activists sent more than 13,400 emails to members of the Legislature and Scott warning against the expansion. It has started scorecards of legislators on key issues.
This year, AFP has run TV ads attacking Democratic U.S. Reps. Joe Garcia of Miami and Alan Grayson of Orlando over the health care law while launching another thanking Rep. Steve Southerland, R-Panama City, for his opposition.
"He told us the lie of the year," a narrator says, referring to President Barack Obama's pledge that people could keep their health care plans, if they liked them. "But our congressman, Steve Southerland, didn't buy it."
Chris Hudson, AFP's Florida director, said the group would continue to push for more accountability in Tallahassee while focusing on congressional races. "Florida is going to lead the way," he said. "Our bite is going to match our bark. I assure you."
House Majority PAC
While many Democrats were condemning the 5-4 Citizens United U.S. Supreme Court decision opening the door to unlimited outside spending, others decided to chase the money.
Enter House Majority PAC, which formed in 2011 and has spent $36 million in Democratic congressional campaigns, including more than $4 million in Florida.
"Democrats were so dramatically outspent in 2010 and we saw how that ended up," said spokesman Matt Thornton, referring to the GOP takeover of the House.
As a super PAC, the group discloses its donors and it has raked in big checks from Fred Eychaner, a Chicago businessman who contributed more than $14 million to liberal groups in 2012, George Soros, labor unions and others.
In Florida, House Majority dumped $2.3 million into TV ads that helped defeat Allen West. It also was involved in the race earlier this year for the Pinellas County seat left open by the death of Rep. C.W. Bill Young. Ads tried to link David Jolly to plans to privatize Social Security. Jolly still won in a race that attracted $9 million in outside spending, a staggering amount for a House seat.
House Majority PAC has announced plans for at least $20 million in ads this election cycle and about $1.3 million of that will flow to the Sunshine State. It has attacked Rep. Steve Southerland, R-Panama City, reminding voters that the lawmaker once suggested his $174,000 salary was not that much and attaching him to last year's government shutdown. Southerland is being challenged by Democrat Gwen Graham.
The group also plans to spend money defending Democratic Reps. Patrick Murphy and Joe Garcia.
"When we're talking about competing financially with the Koch Brothers, we'll likely never reach parity," Thornton said, referring to the billionaire industrialists who have funded a vast web of conservative groups. "But making sure these attacks are not being left unanswered is an efficient way to protect incumbents and compete for GOP-held seats."
Alex Leary, Times Washington Bureau Chief