CORRECTION: This piece has been updated to correctly clarify terminology with regard to super PACs.
The 2012 primary election ushered in a flood of super PAC money, paying for attack ads that helped boost fringe Republican candidates like Sen. Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich into the national spotlight while drawing out the primaries into a long-winded battle that forced the party’s eventual nominee, Mitt Romney, further to the right.
The 2016 primary season has been different: Candidates—and the super PACs supporting them—are spending less on advertising, due in no small part to a constant barrage of headline-grabbing sound bites courtesy of Donald Trump as he leads the Republican Party further into chaos.
Given this shift, a recent Bloomberg report declared super PACs to have been “neutralized” by the media’s obsession with Trump’s seemingly endless series of gaffes and outrageous rhetoric. The article claimed that “conventional wisdom about the dominance of super-PACs continues to be upended,” as candidates sit on their campaign cash and wait for Trump-fever to subside.
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Although it may be true that candidate ad spending is not turning out as expected, that doesn’t mean we should jump to write off the influence of super PACs and their power in elections quite yet.
After the Supreme Court ruled against limitations on how much money could be spent on elections in the 2010 Citizens United v. FEC case, the floodgates were opened for special interest groups to spend freely on campaigns. The decision led to a doubling of outside spending in the 2014 election cycle since 2010, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, and paved the way for special interests to further influence elections through the creation of super PAC groups that can accept unlimited amounts of money. Although super PACs are not allowed to donate to or coordinate directly with a candidate, they may use their funds to “overtly advocate for or against political candidates,” according to Open Secrets.
Now with the 2016 primary season in full swing, super PACs aren’t playing the role some thought they would as candidates shy away from mounting paid advertising campaigns, according to Bloomberg’s Michael Bender. “Far from the trigger-happy behemoths imagined as the campaign first began to unfold this year, super-PACs instead have so far more closely resembled their increasingly nervous donors,” the piece claimed.
“As Trump appears impervious to paid attacks—and is praised by voters for swearing off any help from similar groups—super-PAC operatives have been stockpiling as they frantically search for the right target.”
Still, as we see Republicans move further and further to the right, there should be cause for alarm and examination of the role powerful big special interest donors may be playing in aiding that move. For example, U.S. voters consistently voice support for abortion, funding Planned Parenthood, and for addressing a host of other reproductive justice issues, but candidates seem to be completely ignoring what voters want to push their own extreme positions.
And the unprecedented influx of campaign cash that is continuing to flow to super PACs—regardless of their “neutralization”—could have something to do with it.
In October the New York Times revealed that just 158 families were responsible for nearly half of all contributions to political contenders vying for president so far in the election season. A deeper investigation by Rewire into the NYT reporting found that several of the biggest donors were also anti-choice activists.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX)’s campaign, for example, is funded in part through a network of PACs using varied strategies to help put the senator in the White House. According to the Sunlight Foundation, an organization promoting transparency in government, three of the six largest pro-Cruz super PACs—Keep the Promise I, Keep the Promise II, and Keep the Promise III—have invested a combined $36 million to help influence the 2016 election.
Two of those three PACs are run by the very same financial heavy-hitters Rewire noted to be anti-choice activists—a coincidence that comes as little surprise, given Cruz’s consistent anti-choice rhetoric and support for extreme “personhood” legislation.
Keep the Promise I is funded almost entirely by an $11 million donation from Wall Street hedge fund manager Robert Mercer, who also donated about $40.1 million to mostly conservative causes, including anti-choice organizations, between 2005 and 2013.
As Rewire noted, Mercer also “gave $10.5 million to the anti-choice, right-wing Media Research Center between 2008 and 2013, as well as a quarter of a million dollars to the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a legal group that takes on high-profile conservative cases.”
A combined $15 million contribution from the four members of the Wilks family, who earned their fortune cashing in on fracking, helped launch Keep the Promise III. The family has a well-documented history of throwing millions behind efforts to fund anti-choice initiatives, including a push to indoctrinate children into their conservative beliefs.
It stands to reason that the major influx of campaign cash flowing to Cruz’s super PACs may put the candidate under pressure to continue his move further to the right on reproductive health.
Candidates are also exploiting confusion over what kind of communication between the two is legally allowed. Although super PACs are barred from directly coordinating with the presidential candidates they support, there has been an unprecedented blurring of those lines during this election. For example, Jeb Bush delayed officially declaring his candidacy in order to keep working with his Right to Rise PAC, and other candidates like Gov. John Kasich (R-OH) filmed an ad for his super PAC prior to officially throwing his name into the ring for president.
PACs these days aren’t just throwing money into advertisements, they’re playing critical support roles for campaigns. CARLY for America, a super PAC supporting Carly Fiorina, helps free up campaign resources by taking on many of the election activities a campaign would typically tackle, such as communications and event planning.
The influence of super PACs isn’t exclusive to Republicans. According to the Huffington Post, Clinton’s campaign uses public channels in order to work with the Correct the Record PAC.
“The group posts opposition research to its site that the Clinton campaign can reuse,” it explained. “The Clinton camp also pays a market rate to use the super PAC’s non-public research. This essentially makes the super PAC a direct arm of the campaign, subsidized by six-figure contributions Clinton cannot raise directly.”
Super PACs and campaigns are working hand-in-hand, despite campaign laws. Take again Fiorina’s CARLY PAC for example. During a September GOP debate, Fiorina falsely claimed that the deceptively edited videos released by anti-choice organization the Center for Medical Progress (CMP) depicted “a fully formed fetus on the table, its heart beating, its legs kicking, while someone says we have to keep it alive to harvest its brain.” Fiorina’s outlandish claim was quickly debunked by countless fact-checkers, but one group stuck by her: CARLY for America.
The PAC released an advertisement in an apparent effort to support the candidate’s false claim. The ad, titled “Character of Our Nation” attempted to show the scene being called out by fact-checkers and media as fake by stringing together several scenes from CMP’s videos and other discredited anti-choice sources.
As Rewire reported at the time, the video contained a mashup of several discredited videos spliced together, including “five different video and audio sources from CMP: an interview with a former tissue procurement technician, Holly O’Donnell; a photo of a Pennsylvania woman’s stillborn son that was used without permission; a video from a discredited anti-choice archive called the Grantham Collection; audio from a secret video of a doctor in Colorado; and audio from a surreptitiously recorded phone conversation with a man who works at another independent health-care organization in California.”
Even now, after countless fact-checks and through debunkings, Fiorina still claims she was right about the CMP videos—and has the footage to prove it.
With super PACs continuing to walk the fine line between coordinating with campaigns, be used by special interests to throw millions upon millions into elections, and even craft videos to evidence made-up debate lies, it would seem that the role of super PACs in the 2016 election is far from “neutralized.”