A guide to the ‘shadow GOP’: the groups that may define the 2010 and 2012 elections

This is the second of what will be a regular "Longshots" feature. "Longshots" are The Upshot's longer reports on major issues of the day.

It's a nondescript office building just two blocks from the White House — but in politics, it's ground zero for what many are referring to as the "shadow GOP." On the 12th floor of this New York Avenue office complex, four separate conservative groups are collectively planning to spend at least $70 million to help Republicans win back control of Congress this November.

But the effort isn't limited to 2010. In an operation modeled after the ambitious fundraising, organizing, and research infrastructure that Democrats built up during the George W. Bush years, GOP political strategists are looking to achieve the same goal that their Democratic counterparts did in 2006: They want to win back the White House.

The four groups — American Crossroads, Crossroads GPS, American Action Network and the American Action Forum — are all part of a larger GOP network assembled in recent months to help rebuild the Republican brand. While dozens of former GOP lawmakers and seasoned Republican strategists are involved, the effort largely springs from the work of two former Bush aides: Ed Gillespie, the former Republican National Committee chairman who later served as White House counselor, and Karl Rove, the man Bush once described as the "architect" of his presidency.

All of the organizations were founded separately and organized as individual groups. But each is working closely in concert — they share the same office space within the New York Ave. building, and according to Jonathan Collegio, a spokesman for American Crossroads, his group rents its offices from American Action Network.

They identify each other as "sister" groups, even though officials involved in the effort are cagey about exactly how closely they are coordinating their efforts and message.

"We work together as much as the law allows, though obviously you can glean information from what's in the public domain," Collegio told The Upshot. The groups, however, are strictly prohibited from coordinating directly with individual candidates or political parties.

Other groups closely involved in the effort are Resurgent Republic, a polling and research group that aims to shape the GOP message, and the Republican State Leadership Committee, a group focused on state elections. Gillespie founded Resurgent Republic, while he chairs the RSLC.

As was the case with the Democrats' 2006 initiatives, much of the money going into the GOP effort is secret. While a few of the groups are registered as so-called 527 organizations under federal tax code, most are registered as 501-c4 nonprofit groups. That designation means they don't have to disclose either their donors or where they're spending all of that money. Unlike contributions to political candidates and parties, individual donations to such groups aren't capped or regulated. And that makes them very attractive to big-money donors trying to affect the outcome of an election.

The rise of the so-called shadow GOP comes amid serious drama at the Republican National Committee. Party chairman Michael Steele has drawn harsh criticism from party leaders for what they characterize as over-the-top spending alongside lackluster fundraising. Some of the party's biggest donors have since rerouted their checks to other party committees and to groups within the Rove-Gillespie GOP network. But Collegio insists this cluster of organizations isn't trying to usurp the RNC.

"Nearly all of our donors have already maxed out in contributions to the party," he says.

Here's a quick guide to the groups, the interests behind them, and how much money they are planning to raise ahead of November:

American Crossroads: Founded in March by Rove and Gillespie to counter ad spending from liberal outfits like MoveOn.org and labor unions, this 527 group says it plans to raise and spend upwards of $50 million before November. So far, the group is focusing on 11 key Senate races, including Nevada, where the group has run two ads attacking Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. But Collegio says American Crossroads will begin targeting House races closer to Election Day. According to Internal Revenue Service records, the group has raised roughly $8.5 million so far — including $1 million from Dallas energy executive Trevor Rees-Jones.

Crossroads GPS: A spinoff of American Crossroads, this 501-c4 group can keep its donor list private — a major selling point for individuals and corporations who want to anonymously influence elections. While it won't run ads, the group is picking up some of the pricey administrative tasks that the RNC has usually taken on, including building a database that allows them to microtarget voters in certain congressional districts with outreach specific to their interests.

American Action Network: Modeled in part after the liberal Center for American Progress, this 501-c4 group is headed up by former Minnesota Sen. Norm Coleman and managed day-to-day by Rob Collins, a former top aide to House Minority Whip Eric Cantor. Together with its sister group, the American Action Forum (see below), the outfit plans to be something of a GOP think tank, helping to craft the Republican message. But this side of the operation will focus more on advocating candidates than on policy development. A GOP source tells The Upshot the group is looking to spend as much as $25 million to influence the midterms. Already, the group has launched an ad against Charlie Crist, who quit the GOP to run as an independent in Florida's Senate race. The group has just launched a $450,000 campaign trashing Democrat Paul Hodes in New Hampshire's Senate race.

American Action Forum: An offshoot of the American Action Network, this group will focus more on formulating policy and helping GOP candidates deliver their message than on running ads attacking specific candidates. Fronted by Doug Holtz-Eakin, a former economic adviser to John McCain's presidential campaign, AAF lists Coleman and former governors Jeb Bush and Tom Ridge as board members.

Resurgent Republic: Founded by Gillespie and several GOP pollsters last fall, this group aims to be the Republican equivalent of Democracy Corps, a polling and research group founded by Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg and former Clinton operative James Carville. The nonprofit group will try to improve GOP messaging through polling and research groups and will work directly with other Republican groups in the network.

Republican State Leadership Committee: This 527 group plans to spend at least $40 million to influence state elections, including local House and Senate races, ahead of next year's planned redistricting debate. While Gillespie is the chairman, other advisers on board include former Rep. Tom Reynolds, who used to chair the House GOP campaign committee, and former RNC chair Mike Duncan (who is also working for American Crossroads).

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