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.