Super PACs and campaigns can’t talk to each other. Here’s how they get around it.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) has an "Important Message for New Hampshire" that sure reads a lot like a message for third-party groups aligned with her campaign.


Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), center, talks with reporters on her way to the Senate Chamber to vote on the Reed-Heller unemployment insurance bill on April 3 in Washington, D.C. (T.J. Kirkpatrick/Getty Images)

"More attack ads. Paid for by the Koch Brothers and their special interest money. More proof big oil, the Koch Brothers and Wall Street think they can buy our Senate seat for Scott Brown," reads a section of Shaheen's campaign Web site that oh-so-closely resembles a 30-second ad script and — not to mention — includes high-resolution images and research that documents its claims.

Welcome to the super PAC era, in which coordination between well-heeled outside groups and congressional candidates is forbidden. But Democrats and Republicans on both sides have found creative workarounds. Candidates post clip reels on YouTube that can be pulled by anyone who wants to run a positive commercial for them. Campaign committees post opposition research that anyone who wants to make an attack ad would find handy. Outside groups in turn have shown they are not shy about taking cues on timing and subject matter.

It's all legal, too. And while neither side will say this is what they are up to, there are some clear examples of give-and-take, regardless of intent.

Shaheen's campaign has been villainizing the billionaire conservative Koch brothers for months as a Koch-backed group has been slamming her on the airwaves. And they have been tethering Brown, her main Republican opponent, to Wall Street and the oil industry from day one. So it's not that there's anything new about this "Important Message."

It's the timing and the packaging. Shaheen seems to almost be saying exactly what she wants the ads to say, which is a new level of brazenness.

The challenge for super PACs — which typically spend most of their money on ads — is not to step on the message of the candidates they are supporting or overlap with them or other aligned groups. And since they are barred from talking to campaigns, discerning when to go on air on what subject isn't as easy as picking up the phone.

When campaigns flag "Important" messages online, it eases the burden for super PACs. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has pointed out similar "Important" online messages in recent months about Republicans running in North Carolina and Arkansas that were followed soon after by TV ads from the Democratic super Senate PAC Majority PAC and the Democratic nonprofit Patriot Majority USA attacking those Republicans on the same grounds.

Republicans do the same thing. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) was widely mocked last month for posting a clip reel of himself on YouTube. Sure enough, footage from the reel found its way into a positive commercial a group supporting him launched a week later. Republican Senate candidate Richard Mourdock tried the same thing in Indiana in 2012. The National Republican Congressional Committee has a Web site with customized opposition research on Democrats sorted by district.

National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesman Brad Dayspring wagered Wednesday on Twitter that Senate Majority PAC would go on the air with the message the Shaheen campaign posted on it Web site. The campaign said it posted the message in the form it appears in late Wednesday afternoon. It also sent out a news release via e-mail around the same time.

Senate Majority PAC has reserved ad time in New Hampshire beginning Friday, according to Republicans tracking the ad war. The group did not say what the nature of the new commercial will be, as it only emphasized that it uses various developments to determine its strategy.

"When we determine strategy for any of our races we look at a multitude data points: polling, both public and private, research, what the news media is reporting, what candidates and campaigns are saying on both sides, what local and national issues are relevant, what other groups on either side of the aisle have been saying, and we use all of these factors to determine what message we should be delivering in our ads, where we should be delivering them, through what medium, and when," said Ty Matsdorf, a spokesman for the group.

The DSCC and the Shaheen campaign both rejected the idea that their "Important" messages were geared specifically at outside groups.

"Any ally or opponent knows exactly where we stand and what we have to say about each of these races," said DSCC spokesman Justin Barasky.

Shaheen spokesman Harrell Kirstein said, "We are going to make sure New Hampshire voters know the truth about Scott Brown's record."

But even if all the interplay in all these races is coincidental — something that appears unlikely given how often it happens — it's impossible to ignore the impact it has on key races and the way millions of dollars are spent strategically.

The line between third-party group and the candidates they support is not as clear cut as it may seem. As we've written, family, friends and close allies of these candidates often fund and run such groups. When we account for how candidates and super PACs communicate without actually communicating, the line looks even blurrier.

Sean Sullivan covers national politics for “The Fix.”
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