A new advertisement by a super PAC backing GOP presidential candidate Jon Huntsman Jr. provides another example of the close ties between candidates and the outside groups formed to help them.
The ad comes from Our Destiny PAC, whose chief strategist, political ad maker Fred Davis, helped create a series of attention-getting commercials kicking off the former Utah governor’s presidential campaign earlier this year.
Federal Election Commission guidelines include a 120-day “cooling off” period after an operative leaves a campaign to work for an allied group, but there is disagreement about what exactly is allowed during that time. Davis left the campaign July 27, or 111 days before the super PAC’s ad began airing Tuesday.
An attorney for Our Destiny PAC says Davis is well within the bounds of FEC guidelines because the group did not rely on any inside information from his time with the Huntsman campaign to produce the new ad.
“The rule is not a hard-and-fast prohibition on vendors or employees working on an independent expenditure committee for 120 days after they leave a campaign,” said the group’s attorney, Ronald M. Jacobs of Venable LLP. “We have been very careful to make certain that all of Our Destiny PAC’s activities comply with this rule and that no inside information was used in creating the new advertisements.”
The pro-Huntsman group is just one in a constellation of super PACs that have been formed to support major presidential candidates this year. The groups, which were brought into existence by a series of recent court rulings, can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money on elections as long as they do not coordinate their spending with the candidates.
Watchdog organizations complain that many super PACs are thinly disguised arms of the political campaigns, and are often run by longtime former aides to the candidates. The FEC has decreed that politicians can even solicit money for such groups, as long as they restrict themselves to asking for no more than $5,000 per individual per election cycle.
Some super PACs already have begun running ads that are almost indistinguishable from commercials run by the campaigns themselves.
In the past two weeks, for example, Make Us Great Again PAC has aired at least $700,000 in ads in Iowa and South Carolina on behalf of Texas Gov. Rick Perry, touting the GOP hopeful’s hardscrabble beginnings and budget-cutting credentials. The ads began on the same day that the Perry campaign started running similar feel-good spots in Iowa.
Make Us Great Again is run by Mike Toomey, Perry’s former chief of staff and longtime confidant, who co-owns a luxury island in New Hampshire with top Perry aide Dave Carney. The super PAC has told donors it hopes to raise $55 million to help Perry get to the White House.
Similar connections abound between other super PACs and the presidential campaigns they are designed to boost. A pro-Obama super PAC, Priorities USA Action, is headed by former White House spokesman Bill Burton. Restore Our Future PAC, which has raised $12 million so far to help Mitt Romney, was co-founded by several former Romney aides.
Huntsman has languished at the bottom of the Republican field throughout the year and has had little luck raising money. Our Destiny PAC has yet to file any disclosure reports, but sources say the group has the backing of Huntsman’s billionaire father, Jon Huntsman Sr.
Under the evolving rules surrounding super PACs, Jon Hunstman Jr. would be free to solicit his father for up to $5,000 in contributions on behalf of the super PAC, experts said. The father would also be free to give far more than that on his own.
While campaigning in New Hampshire, Huntsman told NBC News this week that he had not seen the super PAC’s new ad nor talked to his father about it.
“But anything from the outside that serves to bolster our efforts in New Hampshire I am mighty grateful for,” he said.
Many campaign-finance lawyers doubt that the cozy relationships between super PACs and campaigns will get much scrutiny from the FEC, which frequently deadlocks along partisan lines.
“You’ve got unfettered spending regardless of how close the ties are,” said Lawrence H. Norton of Womble Carlyle, a former FEC general counsel. “To say it borders on farce is charitable.”