Why hybrid PACs matter

Why hybrid PACs matter

The reigning narrative is of Super PACs dominating the 2012 elections. But elections are finite moments in time, before and after which the ongoing battle to shape policy continues. The story we may not hear until 2013 is the quiet emergence of Hybrid PACs as a tool of political operators who understand the difference between winning elections and winning policy.

Policy professionals know successful advocacy as a “3-legged stool” that requires three elements: (1) professional advocacy, (2) grassroots and grasstops advocacy, and (3) PAC money.

Professional advocacy is delivered by organizational staff, in-house advocates, or contract lobbyists who shape the overall strategy for a program and the messaging that accompanies it. Those professionals deliver that message to key Members of Congress and staff, and engage the media, coalitions, and manage other efforts.

Grassroots advocacy enhances the message by putting a human face on it—often the face of a constituent or representative member of the affected community. Grassroots’ corollary, known as “grasstops,” uses a representative’s most prominent constituents, or those with direct personal contact, to leverage either their prestige or a relationship with a member to enhance the delivery of the message.

PAC funding creates receptive audiences for the message that can then be delivered to the right people at the right time and, for sophisticated PACs, on an ongoing basis. 

All three legs are essential to an effective lobbying strategy that achieves results. Bumping headlong into that dynamic of effective advocacy is the dichotomy of PACs.

Many practitioners still think of PACs in terms of “Connected PACs”—those affiliated and controlled by corporate, union, or association sponsors—and “Non-connected PACs,” essentially grassroots organizations. Thanks to recent cases, most notably SpeechNow.org v. FEC, non-connected PACs now includes Super PACs, which have the ability to raise unlimited funds from anyone, and tend to raise them largely from a few core benefactors. 

There is, however, a more practical division, often lost on lawyers, between policy-oriented PACs and electorally-oriented PACs

Policy-oriented PACs tend to focus not on elections but on specific and often very narrow policy objectives. Regardless of who wins what election, they will spend their resources year round in D.C. to provide their grassroots, grasstops, and professional advocates with a steady stream of opportunities to effectively convey their message to whoever happens to be the key Members of Congress.  In that way, policy oriented PACs—largely the Connected PACs of corporations and associations—are an integral part of that three-legged stool utilized by sophisticated advocates.

Electorally-oriented PACs are mainly Non-connected (and smaller) grassroots PACs and Connected Union PACs. They tend to be more interested in a broader ideology than any single issue, and are most active largely in the run-up to elections. While some are sophisticated D.C. operators, they are generally less active during the legislative season when it comes to promoting specific policy initiatives rather than general policy goals, and except for the larger Union organizations, tend to have a much smaller, impermanent presence in Washington to build those long term relationships. Many electoral PACs are not effectively used as part of the three-legged advocacy stool, but now can be.

Super PACs are the latest twist on electorally-oriented PACs, bringing vast new resources to bear by many new players to win elections today. And they do so by moving voters—the grassroots—to act on Election Day. But then what? 

On November 7, savvy operators with plenty of money kicking about will need to justify payroll, and big-dollar donors aren’t likely to just abandon what they’ve built. The natural post-election progression of the Super PAC will be from an electoral focus to advancing specific policy goals. This will lead to significant growth in what is called the “Hybrid PAC”—a product of Carey v. FEC, which holds that a PAC can have both an account to accept candidate-contributable dollars and an account to accept unlimited dollars to make independent expenditures and offset operating costs.

Hybrid PACs offer the best of both worlds: Hard dollars to advance specific policy initiatives the way “traditional”, pre-Carey PACs have long done, and soft dollars to underwrite operations, hire advocacy-oriented staff, and support grassroots and grasstops advocacy—the other legs of the three-legged stool.  The electorally-oriented Super PAC players of 2012 can easily become the policy-oriented Hybrid PAC players of 2013, marrying the ability to impact local constituents with the resources and advocacy to impact policy.

Hybrid PACs are the next rung on the evolutionary ladder of advocacy; they aren’t just a legal creation but a practical, operational tool. Sophisticated political operators will see and seize the opportunity.

Dan Backer is principal attorney at DB Capitol Strategies, which provides legal, strategic, and operational guidance to political organizations with a focus on PAC treasury and FEC reporting and compliance.

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