Traditional PACs Up Their Game As the Price of Politics Rise

“$10,000 is great for a candidate…but that and another $10 million is what they need to run a campaign.”

National Journal
Scott Bland
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Scott Bland
May 28, 2014, 4:43 p.m.

The su­per PAC era spawned many changes in polit­ic­al cam­paigns. Here’s an­oth­er one: Tra­di­tion­al polit­ic­al ac­tion com­mit­tees are tak­ing ex­pens­ive steps to re­tain rel­ev­ance in an age when the price of polit­ics keeps soar­ing.

On top of writ­ing their tra­di­tion­al four-fig­ure checks to House and Sen­ate can­did­ates, a num­ber of reg­u­lar PACs are already pour­ing tens or hun­dreds of thou­sands in­to mail, TV, or oth­er ad­vert­ise­ments dir­ectly ad­voc­at­ing for cer­tain can­did­ates. As out­side spend­ing has boomed this elec­tion, led by over $40 mil­lion from the con­ser­vat­ive group Amer­ic­ans for Prosper­ity, reg­u­lar PACs — in­clud­ing some run by po­ten­tial pres­id­en­tial con­tenders in 2016 — are try­ing to keep up with the Joneses.

For a polit­ic­al gen­er­a­tion, White House as­pir­ants from Al Gore to Barack Obama used lead­er­ship PACs to send $1,000 dona­tions to can­did­ates around the coun­try, hop­ing to curry fa­vor with loc­al and na­tion­al politi­cians whose sup­port could come in handy dur­ing a pres­id­en­tial primary. But that kind of money doesn’t make as much of a dent in cam­paign costs as it once did.

“Lead­er­ship PACs are al­most a thing of the past when you’ve got soft money out there able to write these kinds of checks,” says Terry Sul­li­van, the dir­ect­or of Sen. Marco Ru­bio’s lead­er­ship PAC.

“Lead­er­ship PACs are al­most a thing of the past.”

“$10,000 is great for a can­did­ate, and they’re ap­pre­ci­at­ive,” Sul­li­van con­tin­ued. “But that and an­oth­er $10 mil­lion is what they need to run a cam­paign. We wanted to be able to do more.”… Un­der the cur­rent en­vir­on­ment, that doesn’t make the kind of im­pact Marco wanted to make.”

That’s why Ru­bio’s group, Re­claim Amer­ica, has stepped bey­ond the usu­al lead­er­ship PAC role. In ad­di­tion to the $10,000 that Ru­bio’s PAC sent to Rep. Tom Cot­ton’s Sen­ate cam­paign in 2013, it dir­ec­ted an­oth­er $18,000 to the Arkansan by so­li­cit­ing and col­lect­ing money straight from Re­claim Amer­ica donors. On top of that, Re­claim Amer­ica spent an­oth­er $200,000 air­ing its own pro-Cot­ton TV ad­vert­ise­ment last fall as Demo­crats began at­tack­ing him.

Re­claim Amer­ica also aired TV ads sup­port­ing Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hamp­shire as gun-con­trol ad­voc­ates went after her vot­ing re­cord last year, and the Ru­bio PAC just star­ted run­ning TV ads in sup­port of Iowa Re­pub­lic­an Sen­ate can­did­ate Joni Ernst this week.

An­oth­er po­ten­tial 2016 pres­id­en­tial can­did­ate, Sen. Rand Paul of Ken­tucky, did a sim­il­ar thing last elec­tion, when his lead­er­ship PAC (Re­in­vent­ing a New Dir­ec­tion, which — you guessed it — shortens to RAND PAC) spent $400,000 on ads bash­ing five Demo­crats run­ning for Sen­ate over for­eign aid. Ru­bio’s group bundled dona­tions for sev­er­al Re­pub­lic­an Sen­ate can­did­ates in 2012, too.

On the oth­er side, more-con­ven­tion­al spread­ing of lead­er­ship PAC dol­lars seems to be down. The two lead­ing po­ten­tial Demo­crat­ic pres­id­en­tial can­did­ates, Hil­lary Clin­ton and Joe Biden, don’t have them. An ar­ray of pro-Clin­ton su­per PACs have already formed to mar­shal money on her be­half, in­clud­ing Ready for Hil­lary, which took a leg­al step this week that al­lows it to donate to can­did­ates like a lead­er­ship PAC, while Biden is re­portedly un­in­ter­ested in form­ing a lead­er­ship PAC partly be­cause of con­cerns about its im­pact.

You can count the can­did­ates who have re­ceived dona­tions from Ru­bio, Paul, or Sen. Ted Cruz on two hands (though there is plenty of time left for them to give money), while New Jer­sey Gov. Chris Christie’s perch as chair­man of the su­per-PAC-like Re­pub­lic­an Gov­ernors As­so­ci­ation of­fers a vehicle for rais­ing and spend­ing money that makes a lead­er­ship PAC re­dund­ant.

Sev­er­al reg­u­lar in­dustry PACs have ad­op­ted souped-up out­side spend­ing strategies sim­il­ar to those of Ru­bio and Paul. The Amer­ic­an So­ci­ety of An­es­thesi­olo­gists has spent about $300,000 on in­de­pend­ent ex­pendit­ures this year, well ahead of its pace in 2010 and 2012, when al­most all of its $620,000 in dir­ect elec­tion spend­ing came in the late sum­mer and fall. The Amer­ic­an Hos­pit­al As­so­ci­ation PAC spent about $400,000 in early May to pro­duce and air TV ads sup­port­ing Demo­crat­ic Sens. Mark Be­gich in Alaska and Mark Pry­or in Arkan­sas. That’s more money than the AHA spent on Sen­ate races in either 2010 or 2012, com­ing all of six months be­fore voters in either state will cast bal­lots.

But those states and many oth­ers have already seen mil­lions of dol­lars in out­side ad­vert­ising, largely fueled by groups that can raise and spend un­lim­ited amounts of money. In Louisi­ana, an­oth­er red state rep­res­en­ted by a Sen­ate Demo­crat, out­side groups had already spent about $9 mil­lion on ad­vert­ising by the end of April, ac­cord­ing to sources track­ing me­dia buys.

“There’s more money pumped in from out­side than ever,” one PAC dir­ect­or said. “So if you want to have an ef­fect and be help­ful to a par­tic­u­lar mem­ber, you can be more help­ful by put­ting ad­di­tion­al re­sources in­to the race. It’s not that $5,000 in the primary and $5,000 in the gen­er­al aren’t still im­port­ant “… but I think a lot of people are think­ing more about try­ing to make a dif­fer­ence in races that are in play.”

In­de­pend­ent ex­pendit­ures by reg­u­lar PACs cratered in 2010 as su­per PACs ab­sorbed much of the bur­den of coun­ter­ing out­side spend­ing. But the sub­sequent rise in out­side money this year has pushed reg­u­lar PACs to open their wal­lets more in this elec­tion cycle.

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