Op-Ed

Political success no guarantee with super PACS

Neil Nakahodo - Kansas City Star

A super PAC backing Jeb Bush, Right to Rise USA, raised a record $103 million in the first half of 2015 and is spending $20 million on ads in primary states to help the ex-Florida governor climb back to the top of the GOP presidential race.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a favorite of the billionaire Koch brothers’ donor network, stunned GOP hands Monday by terminating his run after his poll numbers plummeted, despite a pro-Walker super PAC, Unintimidated, that was slated to raise $40 million this year and had a big ad blitz underway in Iowa.

And ex-Texas Gov. Rick Perry also pulled out of the race, even though an affiliated super PAC, Opportunity and Freedom, had raised $16 million and was spending heavily in Iowa to boost his poor poll numbers and depleted campaign coffers.

Welcome to the roller coaster world of very flush – but hardly omnipotent – presidential super PACs in the 2016 elections.

Five years after the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling ditched decades of campaign finance laws and ushered in an era of megadonors writing seven- and eight-figure checks to super PACs, the flood of big money into the 2016 elections has been unprecedented – and unpredictable.

For most Republican and Democratic presidential candidates, it’s become de rigueur to have at least one allied super PAC that billionaires and multimillionaires underwrite in greater amounts and earlier than at this point in the 2012 campaign cycle. A few of the super PACs are spending funds faster and overlapping campaign roles more than in 2012.

Super PACs can accept unlimited sums from individuals, corporations and unions to promote candidates, unlike campaign committees to which individuals can contribute only $2,700. But super PACs are not allowed to coordinate their spending with a candidate’s campaign.

GOP FAR AHEAD

Altogether, Republican and Democratic super PACs in the first half of 2015 roped in almost $255 million, almost double the $130 million raised by all the candidates’ campaigns in the same period, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. Overall, GOP super PACs pulled in $235 million, while Democratic ones raised just $19 million, according to the center.

“Today’s presidential super PAC has evolved so far beyond 2012’s model that it’s like a whole new species,” said Viveca Novak, the editorial director at the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. Several of these super PAC goliaths are not only running big TV ad drives, they’re doing voter outreach and other activities more associated with candidates’ campaigns.

But Novak added that “campaigns still have to cover day-to-day costs like salaries and rent, and if a candidate isn’t inspiring sufficient donations of $2,700 a pop to cover those routine expenses, it’s time to fold the tent.” Witness Walker’s and Perry’s exits.

Ironically, the surge in super PAC fundraising has also drawn fire from outsider candidates in both parties: Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Bernie Sanders rose in the polls for much of the summer partly through bashing the influence of big money, making next year’s primary contests seem more volatile and less predictable.

“No super PAC can buy the media attention that Trump has gotten over the summer as an international celebrity, entertainer and salesman,” veteran GOP operative Charlie Black said.

Nonetheless, this year’s super PACs have found plenty of willing big donors to arm themselves for primary battles.

More than five dozen donors wrote seven-figure checks to presidential super PACs, with the largest number of them going to the Bush-allied super PAC. Twenty-four of Bush’s super PAC donors ponied up $1 million or more to help spearhead his $103 million haul, dwarfing the $11 million raised by his campaign in the weeks after he announced. By comparison, the biggest presidential super PAC in 2012 was allied with Mitt Romney, raising $142 million.

Among the bigger North Carolina GOP super PAC donors are Jim Goodnight, CEO of SAS, and Neill Currie, a retired businessman in Wilmington, who respectively gave $100,000 and $155,000 to Bush’s Right to Rise USA. Bob Luddy, the president of CaptiveAire, chipped in $100,000 to Walker’s Unintimidated PAC.

On the Democratic side, the picture is rather different. Hillary Clinton’s campaign outraised a few super PACs backing her, including Priorities USA Action, by almost 2 to 1. The Clinton campaign raised $45 million in the first six months of the year – more than any GOP rivals – while the PACs allied with Clinton raised about $20 million.

In raising such stunning sums so quickly, some candidates – especially Bush and Walker – pursued novel and controversial routes to frontload their super PACs. Once candidates have formally declared their candidacy, they are barred from asking for big checks for super PACs with which they are allied. But Bush spent almost six months mulling whether he was going to run, while crisscrossing the country to meet with wealthy donors to collect his record haul.

“Apparently the lawyers for these groups and campaigns think they can do all this without violating prohibitions on coordination,” Novak said. “That may be the case, especially since the FEC seems to be more paralyzed than ever before.”

Although Clinton has called for new curbs to counter big money, including measures to spur more small donations, her super PAC allies have indicated they’re not going to unilaterally disarm. Democratic election lawyers have asked the Federal Election Commission for a ruling on using the kinds of super PAC tactics deployed by her GOP rivals.

Critics of the new clout of super PACs – including regulators, watchdog groups, some presidential candidates and even veteran fundraisers – said the rapid growth of super PACs is empowering an elite group of megadonors, which isn’t good for democracy.

“The impact of giving $10 or $50 contributions is meaningless when there are donors giving millions,” said FEC commissioner Ann Ravel. The result is that “we’re seeing increasing disaffection from our political system.”

Some fundraisers concur that megadonors are now placing more bets with super PACs.

“It’s become more efficient for candidates to have money raised through super PACs even before they become candidates,” said Fred Malek, a major fundraiser for the Republican Governors Association. “Super PACs give advantages to those candidates who have access to a handful of very wealthy people. I don’t think it’s the right thing for America, but it’s the law of the land.”

Many of this year’s super PACs are in effect operating on steroids and expanding beyond the big ad blitzes that have traditionally been their forte. Several are spending big bucks in areas that historically are campaign staples, a trend that’s being fueled by longtime candidate advisers moving to top positions in super PAC.

“Never before have the super PACS been such integral parts of the campaigns themselves,” Novak said. “Now, you have Bobby Jindal’s super PAC (and others) setting up town hall meetings where the candidate appears. Now, you have Bush’s super PAC (and others) doing voter outreach, the hard door-to-door work. These are the kinds of activities that campaigns undertook in earlier elections.”

General election fears

Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas is benefiting from four affiliated super PACs – all sharing the moniker Keep the Promise – which through June had collectively raised $38 million, underwritten mainly with a handful of seven- and eight-figure checks. One of the super PACs, Keep the Promise I, raised $11 million from hedge fund executive Robert Mercer. In a twist, the Mercer-backed PAC donated $500,000 to Carly Fiorina.

Despite – or perhaps because of – the gushers of big super PAC checks, some GOP operatives said they fear a protracted primary season that could sap resources from attacking the eventual Democratic nominee.

Veteran GOP fundraiser Dirk Van Dongen, who is helping the Bush campaign by “bundling” limited donations, sees some well-funded super PACs supporting candidates with meager campaign coffers, which means “you can almost have zombie candidates who are like the walking dead. Super PACs can continue to give them some degree of visibility.”

To be sure, this year’s souped-up super PACs are imposing. But so is the outsider cachet of Trump and Sanders who are, respectively, mounting self-funded and small-donor campaigns: Both have blistered big money and helped undercut the momentum of much better funded campaigns of Bush and Clinton.

Ultimately, Novak said that “super PACs will help the more conventional candidates stay in the game, and if Sanders and/or Trump flame out early, the super PACs will be central players right up to Election Day.”

Peter H. Stone covered lobbying and the influence of money in politics at National Journal for 18 years.

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