WASHINGTON — Republican-leaning independent groups were supposed to be a key to victory for Mitt Romney. But they ended up being among the big losers of the presidential race, spending an eye-popping $380 million on ads to oust President Barack Obama only to come up woefully short.
Unleashed by the Citizens United Supreme Court decision, which allowed wealthy individuals and corporations to spend freely to influence elections, these super political action committees and other groups played a big role in GOP victories in 2010 — only to fall down badly two years later in their first national electoral test. Republican losses from the top of the ticket on down are forcing the groups' leaders to re-examine their strategy and determine how best to spend their donors' money going forward.
Among those feeling the sting of defeat:
—American Crossroads and its nonprofit arm, Crossroads GPS. Together, the two groups spent $180 million on ads to oust Obama.
The Crossroads organization, cofounded by former President George W. Bush's longtime political counselor Karl Rove, also spent $76 million on ads to help Republicans running in competitive Senate seats, but the GOP lost five of seven of those races. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce spent $33 million on ads for losing Republican Senate candidates.
—Restore Our Future, a super PAC founded by former Romney advisers specifically to boost him, spent $91 million on commercials. Americans for Prosperity and American Future Fund, two nonprofits founded by the billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch, together spent about $66 million on presidential campaign ads.
—Several smaller groups rounded out the total, including the Republican Jewish Committee, the Ending Spending Action Fund, and Thomas Petterfy, a Hungarian-American billionaire who spent $2.8 million on ads he starred in himself.
Several other enormously wealthy donors also saw their investments in outside groups apparently go down the drain.
—Las Vegas casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and his wife, Miriam, were the top contributors to Republican-leaning groups. The couple gave at least $53 million to organizations supporting former House Speaker Newt Gingrich during the GOP nominating period and later to groups trying to help Romney, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks campaign spending.
—Texas-based leveraged buyout specialist Harold Simmons and his wife, Annette, contributed $24 million; Texas builder Bob Perry gave $21 million, and TD Ameritrade founder Joe Ricketts gave nearly $13 million.
Carl Forti, a senior strategist for the Crossroads groups and Restore Our Future, said the ads run by outside groups helped mitigate Obama's fundraising advantage and kept Romney in the game.
"I don't buy the premise that it didn't bear fruit. We did what we needed to do to critique Obama's record," said Forti. "If we hadn't spent on TV, the race wouldn't have been as close as it was. We spent out of necessity."
Asked what the organizations should do now to regroup for the future, Forti said, "That's what we have to figure out."
There are no end to theories about how and what the Republican-leaning super PACs could have done differently.
John Geer, a Vanderbilt University political science professor who studies campaign commercials, said the groups fell short in part because their ads were just not that persuasive. Research conducted by Geer's Vanderbilt Ad Rating Project found that few of the super PAC ads had much impact on voters — the vast majority of whom had made up their minds long ago about whether to give Obama another term.
"These ads didn't have a recurring theme, and they weren't particularly good," Geer said. "I was surprised that the super PACs ran a huge amount of ads that collectively were uninspired."
Geer and other critics also said the various groups' ads worked at cross purposes with the Romney campaign and with one another.
Some Republican-favoring spots assailed Obama on spending and tax policy while others went after him on Solyndra, the green energy company that received millions in federal loan guarantees but ended up going bust. Still other ads criticized the president on welfare reform.
The disparate messages may have become muddled for voters.
"The Republican groups could have made a difference," said Bill Burton, whose pro-Obama super PAC, Priorities USA Action, spent about $67 million on ads. "Instead they blew through money with discordant messages and an erratic spending strategy."
Tim Phillips, president of Americans for Prosperity, defended the groups' emphasis on TV advertising in the 2012 election.
But he said Republicans need to recruit better candidates up and down the ballot and make structural changes such as improving their field operations to boost their chances in future races
"We need a deeper, stronger bench and we need to better message our issues and principles. The Romney campaign should have done this and outside groups should have done this," Phillips said.
Fred Wertheimer, a longtime campaign finance reform advocate, predicted that super PACs and other outside groups would be back with a vengeance.
"Some millionaires and billionaires will throw up their hands as a result of this election and say, 'I don't want to do this.' But other people with an interest in government decisions aren't going to walk away from the corrupting influence this system provides," Wertheimer said.