As some superPACS throw millions of dollars into the Republican primaries, others, such as American Crossroads, are quietly preparing for the day after the primaries end.
American Crossroads is near the White House, but it's more than location that marks the superPAC as part of the Republican establishment. Its co-founders include two former Republican national chairmen and consultant Karl Rove.
To outsiders, it almost looks like a wing of the GOP.
"They have the credibility. People trust them," says Saul Anuzis, a longtime Republican National Committee member from Michigan. "They know that none of them are strident or ideologues in that regard. They're party people."
As the two parties and their outside allies brace for the general election, Anuzis breaks down the financial battle this way: "A third of all the money spent on federal elections will come from candidates, a third will come from the parties, and a third will come from these independent groups and superPACs."
American Crossroads — with $15 million on hand as of Jan. 1 — stands to be one of the central elements of the Republican effort. The group's CEO, Steven Law, says it has just one goal.
"Groups like ours are not very interested in acquiring power," he says. "We're interested in influencing results."
The Crossroads organization gets results partly because of a setup that other outside money groups have begun to emulate.
The superPAC American Crossroads works with a partner, a nonprofit "issues" group called Crossroads GPS, which Law also runs. The differences are small but meaningful. American Crossroads can run overtly political ads, but it has to disclose its donors. Crossroads GPS has to couch its ads in terms of issues, but the law allows its donors to stay secret.
"On the policy side, we want to stop President Obama's agenda," Law says. "On the political side, we want to replace him as president."
SuperPACs are known for their main activity: running blistering attack ads. The Crossroads groups do their share.
The Wesleyan Media Project says Crossroads GPS spent $3 million last year buying "issue ads" in battleground states, including ones like this:
But Law says they are moving beyond just providing air support for grass-roots groups.
"One of the things I think we will engage in more this year is interacting with that grass-roots universe out there," he says.
Crossroads GPS has even produced an issues platform for the campaign.
"We rolled it out a couple of weeks ago," Law says. "We've shared it with people on the Hill. We've also shared it with other advocacy groups."
It's available for any candidates who want to use it.
We know some things about how the Crossroads groups are financed. For American Crossroads, the side that discloses, a mere six donors last year gave a total of $13 million.
In 2011, American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS together raised $51 million. That's compared to $88 million raised by the RNC.
The RNC has high overhead, a national infrastructure and heavy debt from years past, which left it just $7 million in the black at the end of the year. So impressive were the GOP superPACs, in fact, that President Obama's campaign this week started urging donors to support a pro-Obama superPAC.
Meanwhile, Law says donors are more interested than ever in American Crossroads. He says the high-profile presidential superPACs have a lot to do with it, and disclosure doesn't seem as scary as it did.
"The truth of the matter is, if you're interested in direct political impact and election consequences, that's the most efficient way to invest your money," he says.
That's a goal long sought by wealthy players in politics.
"SuperPACs are a different incarnation of an old idea, which is that you can't stop people who have strong preferences about expressing their ideas in elections from doing so," says Robin Kolodny, a political scientist at Temple University in Philadelphia.
And that old idea is taking on a dramatic new life in the 2012 campaign.