By Sam Youngman
When Steven Law ran Mitch McConnell’s first reelection campaign in 1990, they raised more than $5 million.
Last year, Law helped raise $117 million as head of the behemoth Republican groups American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS, which sought to defeat President Barack Obama and other Democrats.
Law, along with famous Republican strategist Karl Rove and former Republican National Committee chairman Mike Duncan of Inez, turned the Crossroads groups into a cash powerhouse for Republicans after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2010 that such groups could collect unlimited amounts of money.
Now, Law is refocusing on his old stomping grounds of Kentucky, his home for a year when McConnell first defended his Senate seat, to help his former boss. More than 20 years later, McConnell has ascended to the rank of Senate Minority Leader, but he faces a bruising reelection battle next year as Democrats have designated him a top target.
Keeping McConnell in his position as one of the nation’s most powerful elected Republicans is the top priority for Crossroads, Law said Monday in an interview with the Lexington Herald-Leader.
“It certainly is personal to me,” Law said.
Kentuckians are getting ready to endure a year of intense political bombardment as outside groups like Crossroads are planning to factor heavy in the race. While McConnell has already raised more than $17 million for the effort, groups like Law’s are not held to the same fundraising limits as candidates.
“I think this will be a race of national proportion,” Law said. “Our expectation is this is going to be a proxy war for every left wing group in the country.”
Law said he is ready to defend his former boss, both in his role at Crossroads and as a board member of McConnell’s SuperPAC, Kentuckians for Strong Leadership.
The former McConnell campaign manager takes partial credit for unceremoniously helping actress Ashley Judd decide against entering the campaign, and he said Monday that his groups are preparing to go to war with likely Democratic challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes.
Judd’s past comments, residential issues and Hollywood glamor made her an easy target in the bloody and bruising world of politics, but Law said Crossroads is still developing its strategy to take on Grimes.
“It’s something that we’re still evaluating,” Law said. “We don’t have anywhere near the final strategy on this. It’s something that’s got to be done carefully and without throwing a lot of wild swings.”
Charly Norton, a spokeswoman for Grimes, said in an email that it’s no surprise McConnell is turning to his “billionaire friends” for help.
“Kentuckians have seen McConnell’s failed leadership firsthand and will not be fooled by the millions in special interest money spent to hide his disastrous Washington record,” Norton said.
Whether Grimes wins or not is largely irrelevant to whether Democratic groups will pour millions of dollars into the race. Though victory is the ultimate goal, national Democrats are eager to at the very least make McConnell very uncomfortable for the next year and leave some bruises on the senator along the way.
Law can identify. In 2010, his group spent heavily in Nevada against Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who was vulnerable but unlikely to lose.
The goal, Law said, “almost wholly apart from that vulnerability was to keep him occupied,” which they did by spending about $2.5 million in Nevada out of the $17 million they spent on Senate races just months after setting up shop.
Reid appears eager to repay the favor. Patriot Majority USA, a SuperPAC with close ties to the Senate Majority Leader, has already engaged in the state in what Law described as “early skirmishes” between outside groups allied with both candidates.
Neither side has settled in for a sustained effort, but in Kentucky next year, Law said he expects at least $50 million to be spent on advertising and voter contact by outside groups backing both candidates.
“Probably a great deal more,” Law said.
While Kentucky is the top priority, Crossroads aims to play in as many as 10 Senate races and two-dozen U.S. House races.
Midterm races generate less money and interest than presidential election years, but Law noted that Crossroads opened its doors in April 2010 and by November had raised and spent more than $70 million on Republican candidates as the GOP overwhelmingly retook the House of Representatives in what Obama later described as “a shellacking.”
Though Crossroads donors got almost no return for their contributions last cycle when the group’s efforts fell short, Law said donors are already asking with “a very keen and specific interest” about helping McConnell win.
“The interest in McConnell has started much earlier,” he said. “That’s more evidence that this is already a national race.”
To that end, Law said he and his team are looking to an unlikely place for inspiration and guidance in 2014.
“We’re doing as many things as we can to duplicate the Obama for America playbook,” he said. “We’re Xeroxing whole pages of their book.”