Pro-Gingrich super PAC builds a shadow campaign

January 24, 2012

They’re hiring field directors, setting up phone banks, building get-out-the-vote teams and crafting a message strategy worthy of a presidential candidate.

But they aren’t staffers for a national campaign; they are the people behind an increasingly potent super PAC supporting Newt Gingrich.

And they are doing what Gingrich’s topsy-turvy campaign hasn’t been able to do: raising lots of money quickly and building a campaign infrastructure ready to go up against the massive operation of his leading rival, Mitt Romney. How well they succeed could shape what is now widely seen as a two-man contest for the Republican nomination — and could determine how many weeks, or even months, it will take to decide the race.

On Tuesday, the group announced that it had purchased $6 million in air time in Florida media markets, a massive ad buy that would make its effort competitive with what the Romney campaign and its surrogates have done in recent weeks.

“It is new territory,” said Gregg Phillips, an Austin-based strategist and political director for Winning Our Future, the pro­-Gingrich group. “I know all of the PACs are doing something different. I think probably Romney’s people see themselves as a money machine that will beat up on Newt and beat up on anybody else in the race. We see it a little bit differently. We see it more as a supplement to the work that the campaign is doing.”

This latest evolution of super PACs raises the question of whether they are endangering the political process or empowering candidates — or both.

Watchdog organizations have assailed the groups for potentially allowing wealthy benefactors to have undue influence over elected officials. At the same time, the PACs can enable a scrappy, eleventh-hour candidate such as Gingrich to remain competitive against better-funded opponents.

“It would be virtually impossible for Gingrich to raise the funds he needs for an elaborate ground operation at this very late stage of the game,” said Robert Kelner, an election lawyer with D.C.-based Covington & Burling. “The super PAC can do it easily and quickly. It’s sort of a positive thing; they’re taking us back to an earlier time where it was possible to come in from the blue as a viable candidate late in the game.”

Testing the law

In many ways, this year’s contest has already been defined by the activities of super PACs, independent groups that have spent millions on political ads to help candidates — and hurt their opponents.

Winning Our Future appears to be defining more broadly than anyone what super PACs do. The group is using unlimited donations for such on-the-ground activities as phone-banking that might be construed as going beyond protected speech — the basis of a 2010 Supreme Court decision that opened the door to the groups. And by setting up a shadow campaign complete with field directors, volunteers, poll workers and drivers, it is testing the law that prohibits any coordination between a super PAC and the campaign it supports.

“They’re going to have a compliance nightmare if they’ve got a lot of folks involved, and they’re going to have to read the law to an awful lot of people out there doing these things for them, and they’re going to have to build all sorts of walls where you wall off any consultants you’re using from any work they might be doing for Gingrich’s actual campaign,” said Scott Thomas, a former chairman of the Federal Election Commission who now practices law at Washington-based Dickstein Shapiro.

Winning Our Future doesn’t have much choice. Though Gingrich surged to a victory over Romney in South Carolina on Saturday, his campaign has dealt with as many setbacks as triumphs over the past year, making for an unsteady operation that has struggled to raise money and build field organizations.

Romney, in contrast, has been steadily accomplishing both those tasks since his last bid for the White House four years ago.

“It’s a logical result of a situation where the super PAC apparently has all the money, and the campaign hasn’t raised enough to do what they need to do in the next primary state,” said Trevor Potter, another former FEC commissioner.

Phillips, the political director for Winning Our Future, is not shy about explaining the extent to which the group is building a shadow campaign. It has been thinking like a campaign since it formed in December, he said, when Gingrich was riding high in the polls — and then sinking fast, under assault from a negative ad campaign launched by Restore Our Future, a pro-Romney super PAC.

Carl Forti, the head of Restore Our Future, declined to comment for this article.

Three leaders, three goals

The Gingrich group consists of three core people: Phillips; Becky Burkett, an Atlanta-based fundraiser for Gingrich’s former think tank, American Solutions; and Rick Tyler, who was Gingrich’s spokesman before he bolted the campaign during its implosion last June.

They established three goals, Phillips said. First was to turn the narrative away from Gingrich’s baggage — his consulting work for mortgage giant Freddie Mac, the House ethics investigation against him and his extramarital affairs.

Second was to establish the nomination contest as a two-man race between Romney and Gingrich, with the latter as the conservative choice. And third was to build an organization that would fill the gaps on the ground that Gingrich’s campaign had left open.

They aimed to meet the first two goals by producing a controversial movie about Romney’s years as head of the private-equity firm Bain Capital. Although the movie has been criticized for mischaracterizing Romney’s role in the bankruptcies and job losses associated with some of the companies that Bain took over, it succeeded in putting attention on Romney.

“We stopped the narrative from being about Romney being the nominee, and everyone started questioning him,” Phillips said. “Now, Romney is releasing his tax returns. All of that stems from the questions people began to ask post-Bain.”

The third objective, building a campaign infrastructure, is beginning to be met, Phillips said. Winning Our Future has hired Chuck Muth, a well-known conservative activist in Nevada, to run the PAC’s operation there in advance of the state’s Feb. 4 caucuses. It is making similar hires in Florida, Arizona, California and Minnesota.

It has reached out to every state operation put in place by Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who dropped out of the race last week. It has purchased voter lists and launched a digital campaign to mirror that of a sophisticated presidential operation. And it continues to run advertisements that target Romney.

Under the microscope

Phillips said one example of what the group is doing came Saturday night. Within 30 minutes of Gingrich being declared the winner in South Carolina, the super PAC had sent out an e-mail titled “Newt the American.” The message, including a video with excerpts of Gingrich’s victory speech in Columbia, S.C., had reached 6 million voters by Sunday morning.

One question looming over Winning Our Future is whether it can assemble a cohesive campaign effort without talking to the Gingrich camp; such discussions are prohibited under federal law. It will be watched for how it attracts volunteers and how it crafts messages and strategy without bumping into what the Gingrich campaign is doing.

Phillips insisted, as did Gingrich’s spokesman, R.C. Hammond, that the two entities haven’t talked. They say it is easy for the PAC to follow Gingrich’s strategy, simply by watching what he says in debates and TV interviews.

Others aren’t so sure.

“Practically speaking, it’s a lot harder for the PAC to build a whole infrastructure without the advantage of having people call the campaign, having your campaign on the ground, people involved, trying to figure out whom to telephone, whom to mail, where you need targeting,” said Potter, the elections lawyer.

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