The rapidly rising cost of running for office, combined with new rules that allow outside groups to raise unlimited funds, has an increasing number of U.S. Senate candidates exploring whether their biggest supporters can — or should — form a super PAC.
The internal debates, taking place in states that will determine which party controls the Senate after next year’s elections, are pitting two sets of political professionals against each other. On one side, strategists close to the candidates themselves are pushing to create super PACs. On the other, party leaders in Washington are urging candidates not to establish their own outside groups.
The divide underscores the new reality of the modern campaign finance landscape: The changing rules mean those who run and consult for campaigns are making more money than ever.
So far, supporters of at least three prominent Senate candidates have formed super PACs. Republican strategist Barry Bennett has formed Fighting for Ohio, a group that aims to raise $5 million to $10 million on behalf of Sen. Rob Portman (R), who faces a tough re-election fight.
In Florida, strategist Jillian Hasner has established Reform Washington, a group that will support Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez Cantera (R) if and when he formally enters the race to replace Sen. Marco Rubio (R). And five Democratic operatives have formed Floridians for a Strong Middle Class, a super PAC that will raise and spend money on behalf of Rep. Patrick Murphy (D), who is also running for Rubio’s seat.
But simply forming a super PAC doesn’t guarantee the money will flow in. In 2014, nearly every Republican candidate had some sort of outside ally trying to raise and spend money on their behalf; only three, groups backing Sens. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), managed to raise and spend more than $1 million.
An outside group founded to support Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) raised and spent just $108,000 in 2012. Another group boosting Terri Lynn Land, the Republican who lost a Senate race in Michigan, spent only $150,000. A third group founded to support Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) didn’t spend anything at all, while Crossroads GPS, the Washington-based Republican outside group, spent $8.6 million.
“Everyone feels like they need [a super PAC] in order to be competitive,” said Carl Forti, a senior Republican strategist who helps run Crossroads GPS and its affiliated groups. “But they become a distraction [and a] burden when they don’t raise enough to do what they promised to do.”
McConnell’s constellation of supportive groups is the model to which others aspire. Two groups, Kentuckians for Strong Leadership and the Kentucky Opportunity Coalition, both run by longtime McConnell aides, collectively raised and spent more than $14 million in 2014.
But McConnell and his allies don’t want other Senate candidates to follow in his footsteps — and top Democratic operatives don’t want their candidates focusing on super PACs either. Instead, both parties want to corral big donors into single entities, based in Washington, that can move money around to support candidates based on next year’s political landscape.
On the Democratic side, that single entity is the Senate Majority PAC, run by former top aides to Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.). In 2014, the group spent more than $46 million on ads blasting Republican candidates. The only other major spender on the Democratic side was a super PAC funded by liberal California hedge fund manager Tom Steyer, who poured about $20 million into Senate races.
Republicans have had a harder time consolidating their big donor-driven super PAC spending. The Crossroads groups spent just over $40 million on the 11 biggest Senate races last year; the U.S. Chamber of Commerce spent $35 million on federal races; and Ending Spending Action Fund, the National Rifle Association and the Koch brothers-backed Freedom Partners each spent more than $20 million.
Crossroads, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Ending Spending, the National Rifle Association and Freedom Partners spent all or most of their money on Republican candidates. Senate Majority PAC, House Majority PAC, NextGen Climate Action and the League of Conservation Voters spent all their money on Democratic candidates.
To avoid further fragmenting the GOP field, the strategists behind Crossroads, including Forti and former McConnell chief of staff Steven Law, have formed the Senate Leadership Fund. Law and Mike Shields, who heads a Republican super PAC aimed at funding House races called the Congressional Leadership Fund, pitched donors in Washington last week in hopes of establishing themselves as the go-to outlet for hefty contributions.
Consolidating outside spending gives both sides an important advantage: If one outside entity is involved in a race, there won’t be any mixed messages.
Multiple messages can confuse voters or disrupt a carefully planned narrative that takes months to build. Party strategists on both sides in recent years have expressed irritation, sometimes verging on outright anger, at other outside groups that muddy a campaign’s core message by pitching their own pet issues.
Other outside groups also spend money on races party strategists in Washington don’t see as winnable.
Having a single outside group make most of the spending decisions “has enabled [Democrats] to spend dollars more efficiently and has resulted in consistency in message, research and tactics,” said Matt Canter, an operative who worked at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in the 2012 and 2014 election cycles.
But strategists for several candidates running for Senate this time around say ruling out a super PAC focused exclusively on their candidate would be akin to unilateral disarmament. Why not take advantage of every possible tool at one’s disposal, they contend, when their opponents could use the same tools?
The two camps are less inclined to talk about the economic aspect of so many outside groups: Super PACs also employ political strategists, ad buyers, pollsters and the like. Those operatives get paid out of the millions they can raise and spend from big donors. Control the donors, and strategists can write themselves a big paycheck.
Not every super PAC exists simply to make its founders wealthy. But many — especially those created as the Tea Party movement got off the ground — have been criticized for spending just a tiny fraction of the money they raise on candidates, and far more on consultants. Groups like the Tea Party Patriots, the Tea Party Express and the Madison Project raised millions but spent lavishly on themselves rather than the candidates they back.
Still, in an age of big money in politics, a candidate-specific super PAC may prove too alluring to pass up — for a candidate who hasn’t declared, and thus may still coordinate with outside groups, or their supporters.