Meet the super PAC both Republicans and Democrats should fear

Democrat Michelle Nunn and Republican Rep. Phil Gingrey hail from opposing ends of the political spectrum. But they have a common enemy: A super PAC that has hit the airwaves with attack ads aimed at both of them.


Online brokerage TD Ameritrade founder Joe Ricketts speaks Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2012. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

It's not every day that an outside group simultaneously hits two candidates from different parties running in the same race before the primary election. But that's exactly what Ending Spending Action Fund is doing in the Georgia Senate race. The group's sudden foray into the quickly intensifying campaign has drawn renewed attention to the unique lane it occupies in the midterm campaign.

So, just what is Ending Spending, anyway? It's the brainchild of billionaire TD Ameritrade founder Joe Ricketts, a Democrat turned Republican turned independent. His family owns the Chicago Cubs. His daughter is a gay rights activists who bundled heaps of cash for President Obama. One of his sons, Pete Ricketts, is running for governor of Nebraska. There is Ending Spending Action Fund, a super PAC; and Ending Spending Inc., an affiliated nonprofit.

Ending Spending's cause is fighting against what it sees as wasteful government spending. For the most part, it is aligned with Republican candidates. But it has also backed Democrats like Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) and former congressman Walt Minnick (D-Idaho). And as the Georgia race shows, it isn't shy about going after Republicans it opposes.

Ending Spending has not made an endorsement in the Georgia race, so its thinking there is somewhat opaque. In its eyes, Nunn and Gingrey are cut from the same cloth when it comes to the issue of fiscal discipline. The group's anti-Nunn ad hits the Democrat for her support of Obama's health-care law. It takes Gingrey to task by casting him as a "big spender in the House." Meanwhile, Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.),  a candidate who has a background as an appropriator in the House, has yet to be attacked by the organization.

The overall 2014 congressional campaign strategy, said group president Brian Baker, is to be innovative about the way Ending Spending deploys its resources, since there are plenty of other groups with more money. So it has been going on the air early in hopes of setting a tone in key contests where other groups have yet to make a deep impact.

The non-profit launched an early ad hitting Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) over her support for Obamacare late last year. The super PAC recently went in with a positive ad to boost her opponent, former Massachusetts senator Scott Brown (R). It has also targeted Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.).

"New Hampshire, to me, was a ripe opportunity to advance our message," said Baker. "We were glad to see other folks jump in up there. Georgia [also] seemed like a ripe opportunity."

In 2012, Ending Spending Action Fund spent about $14 million on federal races, according to the Center For Responsive Politics. The group spent about $10 million supporting Mitt Romney in the presidential campaign and the rest hitting Democratic congressional candidates and supporting Republicans.

Ricketts was a crusader against earmarks when they were rampant in Congress and he continues to try to hold politicians accountable for spending decisions, even when it means backing Democrats. McCaskill was one of Republicans' top targets in 2012, but Ricketts was in her corner. While Ending Spending Action Fund didn't spend money on her behalf, it endorsed McCaskill because of her support for an earmark ban and a proposal to cap government spending at 20 percent of GDP in a decade. Ending Spending spent money on advertising for Minnick, another Democrat, in 2010.

These days, Ricketts's son Todd Ricketts plays a bigger role than his father in the day-to-day operations. He was named CEO of Ending Spending last fall.

Since the group sees itself occupying a very specific niche, don't expect it to wade heavily into contests like the the North Carolina Senate race, where outside groups have already spent millions blanketing the airwaves.

"We try to do very high-impact races where we think we can make a difference," said Baker.

Sean Sullivan has covered national politics for The Washington Post since 2012.
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