Coming soon: A campaign run entirely by super PACs

Three-quarters of the money spent on behalf of Chris McDaniel's failed bid for the Republican nomination for Senate in Mississippi came from outside political action committees (PACs). That money, from groups like the Club for Growth and FreedomWorks, accounted for 36 percent of the funds spent by both sides combined.

We're obviously a few miles down the road from the days when candidates for elected office stood on wooden platforms. But we are perhaps further than you might think. In fact, there is nothing in federal law that would prevent a super PAC or group of PACs from picking out a candidate and taking care of his or her entire campaign. And we're starting to get a glimpse of what such a campaign might look like.


McDaniel supporters at a news conference earlier this month. (Rogelio V. Solis/AP)

In order to win an election, you, first, need a candidate. You need to let people know about your candidate, so you need TV ads and radio ads and ads on Facebook. You need direct mail, and you need people to knock on doors and talk to voters. But, really, that's it. With the right combination of those things, you can win pretty much any political race in the country.

Until recently, candidates' campaigns controlled that activity, in the way that employees work for a CEO. Senior-level staff and consultants facilitated buying media and mail and knocking on doors. Over the past few election cycles, though, PACs have started to figure out the extent to which they can help augment this work by themselves. Unions have run out-of-the-box field programs for a long time; now they're joined by money-soaked PACs that can blanket districts with mail as they hose them down with TV spots.

Candidate

So if you're a candidate, what is the absolute minimum that you need in order to run for office, the thing that only you can provide? The answer is this: The candidate. And in a world where that candidate is restricted in fundraising and spending but those PACs aren't, why not let the PACs handle the TV ads and radio and the online marketing and the field and all of that? For years, candidates have been happy to have outside groups run negative ads against opponents. Why not let them do more? The candidate is just himself, and the PACs do everything else.

Which brings us back to Mississippi. State Sen. McDaniel came within about 1,700 votes on June 3 of being nominated for the U.S. Senate over incumbent Sen. Thad Cochran (R). Seventeen hundred more votes in that first race, and he'd have had over 50 percent of everyone who voted, and been basically guaranteed to head to Washington. He did this with a relatively small and inexperienced staff, including state Sen. Melanie Sojourner, who served as his campaign manager, and spokesman Noel Fritsch, a former staffer for Rep. Steve Stockman (R-Tex.). About two dozen other people were listed on the campaign payroll at $1,000 or $2,000 a month, but the leadership team was small.

Supplementing the campaign staff was an array of consultants and consulting firms. One of the most significant was Pittsburgh-based Cold Spark Media. Cold Spark, run by veterans of Sen. Pat Toomey's (R-Pa.) office and campaign, served as strategists and media buyers to McDaniel. The campaign spent about $2.34 million in his bid for the seat, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics. In the campaign's filings with the Federal Election Commission, you can see where over $1 million of that -- over 40 percent -- went in the last few months of the campaign: to Cold Spark, which then used almost all of it to pay for media buys.

That amount paled in comparison to outside spending. As we noted on the day of the runoff, the heavy majority of money spent for McDaniel's campaign (both for him and against Cochran) came from PACs. At that point, about 83 percent of the money spent to get McDaniel elected came from outside groups, the aforementioned PACs. In the end, outside groups spent more than $7 million on McDaniel (and attacking his opponent) -- over $3 for every one of the candidate's. According to figures available on Election Day, McDaniel had the most heavily outside-driven campaign since 2010. As of the reports filed last week, he'd slipped to third.

Three groups in particular spent heavily for McDaniel: FreedomWorks for America, Club for Growth PAC, and Senate Conservatives Action. Combined, the three groups spent $4.5 million in the unsuccessful effort to get McDaniel elected.

What PAC spending looks like

"In some ways, this race is kind of a model of what we want to do in other races," FreedomWorks for America's national political director Russ Walker told us by phone last week. The group made a large commitment to McDaniel's race, spending over $460,000 on online ads and a robust field program.

What Walker means when he says he hopes the race is a model is the process: His members picking a candidate; his team putting together a field program. FreedomWorks supporters started contacting voters in February, eventually having 350,000 "conversations" with voters. Before the runoff, the group held over 100 get-out-the-vote events and knocked on 140,000 doors.

That's a substantial effort.

In a conversation with The Post, McDaniel's spokesman said that the campaign made "tens and tens and tens of thousands" of contacts with voters, "into the low hundreds of thousands" -- which even in those vague terms is less than FreedomWorks did -- because that's the group's focus. "What we do is a little different than some of the other players on our side," Walker explained. "They tend to do TV and radio and occasionally do persuasion mail." FreedomWorks knocks doors. They are, if you will, the self-assigned field directors for the candidate. But they aren't necessarily working alone.

FreedomWorks and other outside groups are legally barred from coordinating with the campaign. This is because of campaign contribution limits. Without prohibitions on coordination, campaigns could simply tell well-funded groups like FreedomWorks what to do and where to do it, without themselves having to raise a dime.

But nothing prevents FreedomWorks from working with other outside groups, like Club For Growth or the Senate Conservatives Fund. Walker confirmed that the groups that were working on behalf of McDaniel had coordinated with each other, although he declined to go into detail. But as he'd indicated, those groups did TV, radio, and mail; The Club spent over $125,000 on mail, $100,000 on radio, and $1.2 million on TV. FreedomWorks, Walker said, "is part of complement that works well. We all work really well together."

Surely, you would think, there must be some law that prevents groups from taking it a step further, from raising millions of dollars and running a unified campaign to elect a candidate without his or her having to lift a finger?

You'd be wrong.

What the law says

"We as a country keep trying to regulate campaigns, and we keep ending up with something unexpected," electoral law attorney Jason Kaune of the California law firm Nielsen Merksamer told us by phone. "The reason why we limit candidate contributions so much is that we say, 'Well, that money corrupts them.' So then it went to the parties. We said, 'Oh, that's terrible,' so we banned soft money." Instead of containing spending, it just moves outward. "We've created this just incredible web of consultants and non-profits and consultants creating non-profits," Kaune said.

What if outside groups (or even one big group, like Americans For Prosperity), found a possible candidate, sat him or her down, and said: 'You run, we'll do all the work?' The scenario is not only legal, Kaune said, but "perfectly plausible." "The trend of the law set the table for what you're describing. In a way, it frees the candidate." Candidates regularly complain about having to spend so much time raising money. In this scenario, they barely have to fundraise at all. "I think that's where we're headed," Kaune said, "and I think that's what the law encourages."

You might wonder, though, if this coordinated outside campaign would suffer from not having access to the candidate -- access that is tricky under the rules prohibiting coordination. Even with a massive outside effort, the candidate would still need to run a campaign of some sort (including debates, etc.), both to fend off accusations that he or she was bought and sold by outside interests and simply to seem credible. Maybe the candidate says something the outside groups dislike during a debate. Then what?

How to work with the candidate

One way is for the outside groups to recommend consultants. Such consultants would know how to keep the candidate pointed in the right direction. While McDaniel's Cold Spark is a new entrant to the world of political consulting, Politico notes that it is part of a small community of firms tapped to run anti-incumbent races around the country, a group that Politico's Alexander Burns says has "engaged in a kind of musical chairs, trading off responsibilities from one race to the next." In Mississippi, one of those firms, Jamestown Associates, worked for the outside groups backing McDaniel.

But there's another way to work with the candidate: take advantage of the remarkably lax laws around coordination.

In the primary, the group Tea Party Express didn't do much for McDaniel. They drove through Mississippi as part of a national bus tour, but that's it. Shortly after it became clear there would be a runoff, the group e-mailed supporters asking for money, saying, in part, "We just got off the phone with the McDaniel campaign and they need our help!" At that point, there was no independent spending from the group, so that alleged phone call didn't suggest any coordination problems.

McDaniel
McDaniel at a Tea Party Express event in Biloxi. (Clip from this video.)

Then, in late June, the Tea Party Express's PAC, Our Country Deserves Better, paid $23,000 for another bus, emblazoned with McDaniel's picture, and set up a series of events across Mississippi at which the candidate spoke. The events were advertised on the group's Web site: "Rally with Senate Candidate Chris McDaniel."

This level of coordination (in the normal sense) probably doesn't violate any prohibitions against coordination (in the electoral law sense). "There is at least enough smoke here to warrant the FEC investigating," Paul Ryan of the D.C.-based group Campaign Legal Center told The Post by phone when we asked him to evaluate the relationship.

Kaune was less willing to think a line had been crossed. "Is there smoke, and therefore a legitimate question of fire? Sure," he said of the scenario. But: "My initial reaction is that if the tea party group made a plan to do a bus tour, and made the arrangements for the bus tour, and then invited the candidate, there's no coordination."

Tea Party Express did not return calls requesting comment. In a statement, Fritsch, the campaign spokesman said, "We are very grateful to have received support from some of the grassroots organizations who joined the fight in Mississippi and who continue to assist us in this new challenge. The rules are very clear, and we're very careful to abide by them."

In short: There's a lot of flexibility in how PACs and candidates work together, and in how much the PACs can do. Field. TV. Radio. Mail. Even campaign events. All paid for and organized by outside groups on behalf of a campaign that therefore didn't need to raise as much money. And from the campaign's standpoint, why not?

In our phone conversation with him, we asked Fritsch how the campaign felt about the extent of the support it had received from PACs over which it had no control. Were they appreciative of that level of involvement?

"Obviously," he said. "Very, very thankful."

Philip Bump writes about politics for The Fix. He previously wrote for The Wire, the news blog of The Atlantic magazine. He has contributed to The Daily Beast, The Atlantic, The Daily, and the Huffington Post. Philip is based in New York City.
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