"Super PACs" and tax-exempt advocacy groups — on track to spend roughly $1 billion on federal races, an unparalleled sum — are poised to expand their influence even further.
Amid the white-hot final weeks of this election, outside groups are already plotting their next targets: the year-end battle over the federal budget, the 2014 congressional races and a possible fight over the next Supreme Court nominee.
"Our goal was to build an enduring institution on the conservative side to counter the outsized power of organized labor on behalf of Democratic causes and candidates," said Steven Law, president of the super PAC American Crossroads and its nonprofit sister, Crossroads GPS.
"I do think this will be seen as a watershed year when parties were not as strong as they have been in previous cycles," said AFP President Tim Phillips. "Now groups like AFP have significant financial resources and massive grass-roots networks that in many ways mirror the party. We are going to beat up on bad guys, and we are absolutely going to hold accountable Republicans."
Another nexus of influence: the two Crossroads organizations, guided in part by veteran Republican strategist Karl Rove. Crossroads GPS plans to be active around the "fiscal cliff" debate over automatic tax increases and spending cuts slated to occur at year's end. And if Mitt Romney wins the White House, it will help promote a "first 100 days" agenda. Meanwhile, American Crossroads is working on an initiative to better coordinate the resources of its allies, which include the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Americans for Job Security, a business-backed nonprofit.
"To the extent that Crossroads isn't going anywhere, AFP isn't going anywhere, and they will have programs in the midterm elections, then I don't think we can cede that ground even for a second," said Rodell Mollineau, president of American Bridge 21st Century, a super PAC founded by conservative-turned-liberal activist David Brock that provides opposition research for the left. "You have to fight with all the tools you have."