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From presidential race to House primaries, super PACs having wide impact

Using unlimited donations and spending money on TV ads in races across the country, Super PACS played a prominent role in helping the Republicans win control of the House in 2010. This year Democrats, who initially condemned Super PACs,  are joining the fray with their own.

Super PACs were made possible by the Supreme Court in its Citizens United decision in 2010 and other federal court decisions. In this year’s campaign, there’s been endless discussion about super-sized contributions that these PACs, both Republican and Democratic, have been collecting from donors such as Las Vegas casino executive Sheldon Adelson, Louisiana energy executive William Doré, and billionaire investor George Soros.

The Super PAC buzz grew louder Thursday when The New York Times reported that a Super PAC called the Ending Spending Action Fund, backed by TD Ameritrade founder Joe Ricketts, had weighed the idea of running a TV ad which would remind viewers of President Barack Obama’s former pastor Rev. Jeremiah Wright and his “God damn America!” sermon.

The PAC issued a statement Thursday saying the proposal reported by the Times “reflects an approach to politics that Mr. Ricketts rejects.”

On Tuesday in the Nebraska Republican Senate primary, the Ricketts-backed Super PAC helped boost state Sen. Deb Fischer to an upset win over two better-known rivals. It had invested $250,000 in a TV ad for Fischer.

Traditional political action committees, such as the Boeing PAC or the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers PAC, are constrained by federal rules which limit donors to giving a maximum of $5,000 per year.

Neither the traditional PAC nor the Super PAC is allowed to coordinate strategy with the candidates they’re helping, but that rule “is easily evaded,” said Meredith McGehee, the policy director for the Campaign Legal Center, a non-partisan group that supports stricter campaign finance laws.

Since a Super PAC can collect unlimited contributions from a donor, raising funds is much easier than for the traditional PAC. And as Ricketts proved in Nebraska on Tuesday, all it takes for an obscure super PAC to become a big player is for one wealthy person to decide he wants to influence a race.

There’s concern among some Democrats that their donors may not be able to match conservative and Republican funders in ponying up the millions of dollars needed to pay for both TV ads and on-the-ground organizers in the fall campaign.

“The doomsday scenario that people saw after Citizens United is coming true,” said Democratic consultant David DiMartino, a former aide to Democratic Nebraska Sen. Ben Nelson. “There’s unlimited money floating into these races, making unsubstantiated claims and blanket attacks on candidates on both sides.”

He added, “Part of what is scary about Super PACs is that Democrats or progressive constituencies simply don’t have the firepower and bank accounts to match what the other side can do. Just by the nature of who constitutes the Democratic coalition, there are not as many deep pockets as there are on the other side.”

But Democratic donors, especially labor unions, are pitching in; one of the best-funded efforts so far is the House Majority PAC, a super PAC focused on winning Republican-held House seats.

House Majority PAC spokesman Andy Stone said, “There is no question that getting on TV is critically important. Having a good ground game matters, but we saw what happened in so many House races last cycle where a Democrat was challenging a sitting Republican and the race was competitive until the last weeks of the campaign, when hundreds of thousands of dollars in outside Republican money came in and Democrats were blown out of the water.”

He added, “House Majority PAC exists to counter the onslaught of outside Republican money we saw in 2010” and “continues to make the case to supporters that it is critically important that we be on TV.”

The group has already spent money on TV ads and direct mail against Republican Jesse Kelly (who is running in the June 12 special election to replace Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in Arizona), House candidate Linda Parks (a Republican-turned-independent in California’s 26th congressional district), and several GOP hopefuls in other states.

But in New Hampshire, one Democratic House candidate, Carol Shea-Porter, who is trying to win back the seat she lost to Republican Rep. Frank Guinta in 2010, does not want Super PACs to air TV ads in her race.

“It really has gotten ridiculous. Individuals are limited to $2,500, Super PACs are unlimited and their money is just from a handful of individuals and groups and when you look at who those groups are, that’s not the American population at large.”

She has called on Guinta to agree to a mutual pact to disavow Super PAC spending in their race, along the lines of the one that Republican Sen. Scott Brown of Massachusetts entered into with his Democratic opponent Elizabeth Warren.

But Shea-Porter also said it was fine with her if a Super PAC spent money to put organizers on the ground to canvass and contact voters -- as the San Francisco-based CREDO Super PAC has done in New Hampshire in an attempt to defeat Guinta.

It’s only the Super PAC money that’s used to air TV and radio ads that she objects to:  “It’s really that carpet bombing on the airwaves, there’s absolutely no way to answer, there’s no accountability and they hide who they are.”

But, she said, “if people are working on the ground, and they are face to face talking to people, and people can identify who they are -- that’s fine,” she said.

Shea-Porter’s stand prompted National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Nat Sillin to accuse her of “hypocrisy and doublespeak on Super PACs.”

You can get an idea of the wide reach of Super PAC activities by looking at one day’s worth of filings with the Federal Election Commission.

For example, take this Tuesday, May 15. Here’s how Super PACS told the FEC they spent their money:

  • In California, a single-purpose super PAC called "Committee to Elect an Effective Valley Congressman" reported it spent $96,219 on a media buy on behalf of Rep. Howard Berman, the 15-term Democratic congressman who is battling in the June 5 primary with rival Democrat, eight-term Rep. Brad Sherman. Redistricting has put the two Democrats in the same district.
  • Also in California, a Super PAC called "Restoring Our Community" spent $10,281 on staff salaries for campaign workers in effort to elect Democrat Pete Aguilar in the primary in the 31st congressional district. Aguilar is one of four Democrats vying for the seat against two Republicans including Rep. Gary Miller; the top two finishers in the primary go on to the November ballot.
  • In Indiana, the USA Super PAC spent $25,200 on a radio ad for Senate candidate Richard Mourdock, who last week defeated Sen. Richard Lugar in the Republican primary.
  • In Texas, the Campaign for Primary Accountability, a Super PAC that seeks to defeat incumbents in both parties, spent $50,000 on a TV ad attacking eight-term Democratic Rep. Silvestre Reyes, who is being challenged by former El Paso city councilman Beto O’Rourke in the May 29 primary.
  • Also in Texas, where conservative Ted Cruz, the state’s former solicitor general is challenging Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst for the GOP Senate nomination in the May 29 primary, a Dewhurst-affiliated Super PAC, the Texas Conservatives Funds, spent $250,000 on a media buy against Cruz, while the Washington-based Freedomworks for America Super PAC reported that it spent $2,953 on travel expenses, staff and overhead in support of Cruz’s candidacy.

That’s just one day’s worth of Super PAC activity; it will go on every day until Nov. 6 and at an increased tempo as we get closer to Election Day.