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Low-Profile SuperPAC Targets Powerful Incumbents

In the presidential campaign, superPACs have been grabbing all the headlines. They've practically taken over the TV air wars from the candidates themselves as they rack up seven- and even eight-figure contributions that the candidates aren't allowed to touch.

But this superPAC isn't like that. The Campaign for Primary Accountability has no million-dollar donors — at least not yet. And its goal is to oust entrenched members of Congress in their primary races, regardless of their party.

Attacks In Alabama

In the past few weeks, the superPAC has been after Alabama Republican Rep. Spencer Bachus ahead of the state's primary Tuesday.

"Congressman Spencer Bachus is under investigation for profiting from his office," one ad from the group says. "He has taken $3.7 million from the financial industry and passed a $700 billion bank bailout."

The investigation referred to is by the Office of Congressional Ethics, which is looking into allegations that Bachus, as chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, used inside information to make money on Wall Street.

Bachus emphatically denies that. But he is sweating the primary like no other election since he went to Washington in 1992.

His counterpunch against the superPAC says: "Obama's Democrat allies want to destroy Spencer Bachus. That's why out-of-state interest groups are attacking Bachus."

The superPAC is also aiming at Alabama Republican Rep. Jo Bonner, chairman of the House Committee on Ethics.

Bonner also has labeled the superPAC as an out-of-state special interest group. But that isn't so, says Curtis Ellis, spokesman for the Campaign for Primary Accountability.

"We serve as the equalizer," Ellis says. He says the superPAC isn't partisan, just anti-incumbent.

"We want to make sure that challengers have a shot against the incumbents, who have all the advantages," Ellis says.

Those advantages include interest-group money and congressional districts drawn to let those in power stay there. Even in 2010, with the Tea Party tidal wave, 87 percent of incumbents won re-election.

Ellis' conclusion: "The primary election, therefore, is the real election."

Mixed Results

In Ohio last week, the superPAC helped to oust four-term Republican Rep. Jean Schmidt from her safe Republican seat. But it spent heavily and failed to help eight-term Rep. Dennis Kucinich get past fellow Democrat Marcy Kaptur, a 15-term incumbent in a solidly Democratic district.

As a political organization, the superPAC isn't much — just 14 donors disclosed so far, and $1.8 million raised.

The core group includes a construction magnate and an oilman from Texas, a businessman philanthropist from Denver, and Wisconsin libertarian Eric O'Keefe, who once led the push for congressional term limits.

NPR analyzed the superPAC's filings at the Federal Election Commission. They show that the group has spent $190,000 against Bachus. The money bought the TV ads, robo calls, emails, online advertising and direct mail.

"You don't need to spend a lot of money to make a big difference," says Ellis.

But Bachus' main rival, state Sen. Scott Beason, has raised just $68,000 so far, while Bachus' total is $1.9 million.

And it's entirely possible the superPAC has missed the point.

"Basically it seems like it's attacking Bachus for being a shrewd manager of money," says William Stewart, a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Alabama. "And generally speaking in Alabama, that's not a real big handicap."

There's another line of attack: pork-barrel spending. Stewart says that for every dollar Alabama sends to Washington, it gets back $1.66. "I think the people of the state are basically pleased with that," he says.

But nationally, the primary season still stretches on for months. The Campaign for Primary Accountability has time to refine its messages — and choose more targets.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Peter Overby
Peter Overby has covered Washington power, money, and influence since a foresighted NPR editor created the beat in 1994.