Super PAC frenzy redefines campaign operations

Just hours after Florida Governor Ron DeSantis dressed a heckler at an event in South Carolina, his super PAC lined up, Never Back Down, tweeted the video with cheering emojis and the caption ‘Not on our watch’. The incident racked up millions of views and aired on Fox News.

Never Back Down runs alongside the DeSantis campaign. Its buses and employees appear at its events. And he recently promised a massive door-to-door effort to support his campaign.

It’s not just DeSantis and Never Back Down at the same pace on the track.

Super PACs have been going from strength to strength for more than a decade, but this cycle is swimming in more money than ever. They started earlier, with more than $14 million in independent primary spending already, according to federal data, compared to about $950,000 at this time in 2015. The groups are also taking new approaches, deploying staff during campaign events, paying for the door – knocking operations and even sending out fundraising texts on behalf of candidates.

Some of the new strategies could test the legal limits of coordination between campaigns and super PACs, though campaign finance experts say the groups so far appear to be complying with how the Federal Election Commission has interpreted the rules. rules. But the greater field presence of super PACs has not gone unnoticed.

“There seems to be a new level of brazenness about how much super PACs show up at campaign events and vice versa,” said Saurav Ghosh, director of federal campaign finance reform at the Campaign Legal Center.

This spurt of resources could be a huge boon for candidates who can take advantage of it, although past primaries show that having the most money does not automatically make a candidate a winner.

MAGA Inc., the super PAC backing former President Donald Trump, began running ads against DeSantis before the Florida governor officially became a presidential candidate. The mnemonic Trust In the Mission PAC, supporting Senator Tim Scott’s presidential candidacy, has lost millions on TV ads that display Scott’s official campaign website URL. And Committed To America, the group that backs former Vice President Mike Pence, quietly dropped hundreds of thousands of dollars while canvassing in Iowa.

Outside groups have also sought to bring down candidates: Americans for Prosperity Action, a super PAC backed by the Koch brothers, spent just over $100,000 on a digital ad buy against Trump.

But no campaign seems to have benefited more from a super PAC than DeSantis’. The Republican who has emerged as the main alternative to Trump has had massive support from Never Back Down. His endorsement of his candidacy is secured by more than $110 million in funding — though much of it comes from a Florida political committee that was once DeSantis’ own gubernatorial campaign.

Never Back Down staffers regularly work on DeSantis events in early voting states, delivering swag and volunteers whose message matches that of the campaign, right down to the tagline. DeSantis’ stump speech includes a line about how he doesn’t back down from tough fights. (The group said it only learns of DeSantis’ campaign events when they are released publicly.)

Never Back Down staffers showed up at an event DeSantis headlined in Iowa shortly before announcing his campaign with signs and a decorated bus in tow. They followed his appearances throughout Hawkeye State, joining him on an impromptu stop at a pizzeria in the afternoon and a bar later that evening.

The group was available again in its first week as a candidate, dragging Trump around on a bus in Iowa and greeting attendees at a rally in South Carolina. And they are active on social media, defending the governor and hitting on his rivals. A recent tweet poked fun at Trump for losing re-election — a step beyond what DeSantis has been willing to say about the former president’s electoral performance.

The group said its canvassers have already knocked on 300,000 doors in the first four primary states.

“The unprecedented momentum behind Governor DeSantis has enabled Never Back Down to mount a massive operation in the first primary states,” said Never Back Down spokesperson Jess Szymanski.

The role of super PACs dates back to 2010, when a pair of Supreme Court rulings allowed outside groups to spend unlimited money on politics — so long as they didn’t coordinate with campaigns. Total super PAC spending has increased in every presidential cycle since then, a trend that is almost certain to continue.

Although the presence of super PACs at campaign events may give the impression that they are working with campaigns, the FEC has interpreted the coordination restriction narrowly. Many candidates get around this problem simply by disseminating campaign information widely.

“To be restricted or banned, a super PAC must speak to a candidate. They need to be in conversation in coordination about the specific details of the specific expenditures made by the super PAC,” said Paul S. Ryan, a longtime campaign finance and ethics attorney. “It is such a narrow field of related activities that it turned out to be almost meaningless.”

In 2016, a super PAC supporting former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina’s presidential campaign organized and organized events that the candidate attended, a setup that was legal because Fiorina’s campaign made its platform of public travel, so there was no private communication between his campaign and the outside world. band. The super PAC, named Carly for America, even circumvented an FEC rule that super PACs cannot use the nominee’s name by having “Carly” stylized in all caps and meaning “Conservative, Authentic, Responsive Leadership for You”.

In the digital age, it is easy for outside groups to track and replicate the official campaign message, whether for advertisements or scripts for paid knockers, which are often inspired by a candidate’s speech. or other public messages.

Super PACs have stepped in to help longtime candidates garner enough small donors to meet Debate State qualifications. The super PAC supporting former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, Tell It Like It Is, ran digital ads that include a link to donate to his official campaign and a message to help the former New Jersey governor move on to the August debate stage.

The role of super PACs in fundraising for candidates is relatively new, but the law allows groups to share links to a candidate’s giving page just as they would any other communication.

Never Back Down sent fundraising texts that allow the user to donate directly to DeSantis. The group also collected online contributions for DeSantis’ official campaign before its launch; he said that effort raised $500,000.

Super PACs also engage in typical activities such as buying expensive TV ads, led by MAGA Inc., which spent nearly $20 million this year, according to AdImpact data. Never Back Down has lost $14.1 million so far.

The flow of money continues to trouble Ghosh of the Campaign Legal Center because of its implications for the larger role of wealthy donors who fund outside groups.

“They’ve become part of the campaign finance landscape in such a way that I think it’s become unthinkable that anyone could actually run for president without one,” he said.

Zach Montellaro contributed to this report.

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