Single-Candidate Super PACs: A Worrisome Trend

March 10, 2014
Ready for Hillary

Greeting you on the home page of the Ready for Hillary website is an appeal to show your support for the former First Lady, New York senator and secretary of state by typing in your email address. This emphasis on online list-making has been standard issue for all candidate websites since the early days of the Internet.

Only when you click on the “Contribute” button, do you get a hint that politics has changed since the heyday of dial-up. While the suggested options range from a modest $20.16 (get it?) to $500, the print directly beneath “Donate Now” tells the true tale: “There is no federal legal limit on how much you can give.” 

Ready for Hillary is, of course, the apotheosis of the Super PAC era. Never before has the nation been treated to a full presidential campaign apparatus with none of those pesky $2,600 contribution limits nearly two years before the Iowa caucuses. Granted the candidate herself is temporarily missing (unless you attend one of her paid speeches), but everyone recognizes that is a minor and temporary impediment.

When an exhausted Clinton left government in early 2013 with the stated goal “to see if I can get untired,” she had all the attributes that a presidential candidate could fantasize about — with one major exception. Hillary’s email list from the 2008 primaries was so ancient that it is safe to assume that many of the addresses ended with “aol.com.”

Clinton does not need Ready for Hillary to keep her name in the news, to prevent restive Democrats from signing on with other candidates or even to get a head start on fund-raising. All these things help for 2016, but Hillary as a declared candidate will not hunger for either money or media attention. But the Super PAC’s primary goal is to assemble an email list that will rival the 13 million names that powered Obama for America in 2012.

All this gives rise to one of the biggest practical questions of the Super PAC era: Can Ready for Hillary give that invaluable and patiently assembled email list to Candidate Clinton?

This is one of those rare instances where the Federal Election Commission’s often-porous rules unequivocally say no. A direct transfer would represent an illegal in-kind contribution. But there remains an obvious work-around. “She would have to buy it,” explains Paul S. Ryan, senior counsel at the Campaign Legal Center. “The FEC tends to require fair-market value for any list sale. The watchdog in me would argue that the value of that list is what it cost to create it. But that may not be how the FEC views things.”

The odds are miniscule that the FEC would require an outlandish price for the Ready for Hillary list. But whatever the cost, it would be one of the great bargains in 21st century politics, assuming Hillary runs. Instead of frantically starting from scratch in 2015 to identify her millions of ardent supporters, Clinton would have the benefit of Ready for Hillary’s head start in spending 18 months trolling for names.

One-candidate Super PACs like Ready for Hillary are the most worrisome trend in contemporary politics. Often run by veteran operatives — with close ties to the candidate purportedly oblivious to their independent efforts — these Super PACs tend to be disciplined and focused on winnable issues in deploying their unregulated resources.

The Mississippi Senate primary, pitting GOP incumbent Thad Cochran against conservative insurgent Chris McDaniel, has become a proxy war between Super PACs. At least at the moment, Cochran’s Super PAC (Mississippi Conservatives) appears to be holding its own in the air wars against Club for Growth, which is running generic anti-Cochran ads on behalf of McDaniel.

But a disproportionate amount of media attention continues to be fixated on multi-candidate Super PACs from Americans for Prosperity (the favored plaything of the Koch brothers) to NextGen Climate Action, just launched by Democratic hedge-fund billionaire Tom Steyer. Nothing appeared more chilling than a recent front-page article in the New York Times about Super PACs headlined, “Big-Money Donors Demand Larger Say in Campaign Strategy.”

Sorry, I remain skeptical. An enduring truth of 21st century politics is that a billionaire and his or her money are soon parted.

Think of Linda McMahon, who squandered $99 million of her own money on two Connecticut Senate races, without ever topping 44 percent of the vote. Consider the $142 million that mega-rich Republicans poured into Restore Our Future, the 2012 pro-Mitt Romney Super PAC. Throw in the dismal track record that both the Koch brothers and American Crossroads (the Super PAC partly directed by Karl Rove) had in the 2012 elections on all levels. Or, more recently, there is the $6 million that Mike Bloomberg gave last year to Independence USA PAC in a futile effort to influence the gun debate in Congress.

Billionaires in politics are as much an easy-pickings target as a miner who walks into a Western saloon with his pockets filled with gold dust. For a campaign consultant frustrated by tight candidate budgets and uncertain fund-raising, working for a sky’s-the-limit Super PAC has become the easiest way to pay for private-school tuition and a new beach house. As Greg Giroux shrewdly noted in a 2012 article for Bloomberg News, “Producing and placing ads have long been two of the most lucrative slots in a campaign organization. With a super-PAC, the opportunity to make money is soaring while the job is getting easier to do.”

The inevitable next step with multi-candidate Super PACs is that the donors quickly decide that because they are rich they know politics better than veteran party operatives. In the Times story, Nick Confessore reports, “Donors like Paul Singer, the billionaire Republican investor, have expanded their in-house political shops, building teams of loyal advisers and researchers to guide and coordinate their giving.” My reading of that passage – and forgive the cynicism – is that what we will be witnessing is an income transfer program from Paul Singer to his campaign consultants and their favored sub-contractors.

As the last few election cycles have demonstrated, multi-candidate Super PACs often have agendas that go beyond the simple political question of winning. Club for Growth in backing far-right primary challengers to establishmentarian GOP incumbents does not appear to be concerned about the electoral future of the Republican Party. Tom Steyer’s plan to raise and spend $100 million in the 2014 elections to put climate change back on the national political agenda may be an idealistic outlet for his ideological beliefs. But his efforts come with the risk that raising issues like cap-and-trade may end up costing the Democrats as many votes as his $100 million will buy.

I know I risk sounding like a corporate motivational wall plaque quoting Vince Lombardi, “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” But the real danger from Super PACs comes when they are fixated on electing a single candidate rather than pumping up fees for consultants, scoring ideological points and catering to the hubris of the super-rich. That is why I worry about the precedent being set by Ready for Hillary far more than about the latest examples of the grandiosity of the Koch brothers and their Democratic imitators.

Walter Shapiro has covered the last nine presidential elections. Along the way, he has worked for two newspapers (USA Today and the Washington Post), two news weeklies (Time and Newsweek), two monthlies (Esquire and the Washington Monthly), and two online magazines (Salon and Slate). He is also the author of "One-Car Caravan: On the Road with the 2004 Democrats Before America Tunes In," a chronicle of the early skirmishing for the presidential nomination, published by PublicAffairs in November 2003.

A current columnist for Yahoo News, Shapiro teaches a political science seminar on the news media and the 2012 campaign at Yale. And he is working on a book about his con-man great uncle who cheated Hitler.

You can reach Walter Shapiro by email: waltershapiro@ymail.com

And follow him on Twitter @waltershapiroPD.

The views expressed are the author's own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.

(Photo: AP)