In the immediate aftermath of Citizens United, many predicted a flood of new corporate expenditures were about to quickly overwhelm U.S. elections. It didn’t quite turn out that way last cycle, or through this cycle so far. The vast majority of the dollars are still coming from wealthy individuals, not corporations.
Jason Torchinsky, partner at the campaign finance firm Holtzman Vogel, says an environment shift as large as Citizens United takes time for corporate entities to get used to, but he predicts their influence will expand once they match up with candidates who see eye-to-eye with their interests.
“I can’t say it’ll be greater [than federal spending], but I bet you’ll see more corporate dollars at the state and local levels,” Torchinsky predicts.
Take the Durham Partnership for Progress, a Super PAC funded by developer Tyler Morris His company has plans for a controversial housing project in the Jordan Lake watershed of North Carolina, so earlier this spring Morris’s PAC backed three incumbents who voted previously to rezone the area, as well as one challenger also on board with the project. Mailers were sent out by the Super PAC, which spent $54,000 promoting the four candidates in the May 8 Democratic primary.
“I had no clue, truly, truly had no clue, [Super PACs] existed,” claims Rickey Padgett, the sole challenger backed by the partnership. “Anytime you get anybody supporting you, it’s a good thing.”
Padgett’s view: Super PACs are an extension of free enterprise, needed to tip the scales at the right time, but it falls on voters to judge the persuasiveness of their endorsement.
Michael Page, one of the incumbents backed by the group, also claims he had no idea the Durham Partnership supported him until he received a flier in the mail. Page says he avoided addressing the Super PAC’s support in his campaign, but sees no need to rebuff their support.
“It’s hard for me to understand why individuals get angry with Super PACs when the majority has always been the rule of thumb,” says Page. “How can I stop a millionaire? That’s not my place.” It’s part of the allure of local elections for Super PACs, says Devine. The ability to have a huge impact with less money than they typically spend at the federal level is hard to resist—expending $200,000 on a state legislative race, usually means a Super PAC can swamp the opposition.
So what’s a candidate to do if he or she wants to survive the emerging local Super PAC landscape? Getting your own Super PAC is one option, and it might just be the best option, say some campaign finance gurus. But if you don’t have an outside group on your side and you’re staring down an opponent who does, Devine says you had better come out swinging right from the start.
“I think what you have to do is take your gloves off,” he says. “If you’re getting hit hard, make your opponent the issue.”
One reason Super PACs can have an outsized impact in local contests, Devine argues, is that many down-ballot candidates simply don’t know how to respond when hit by a well-funded outside group. One way to hit back is by making the Super PAC the issue. Make sure voters know who it is they’re hearing when it comes to outside group advertising that’s attacking you or your record.
Some strategies that could work, according to Devine: working to convince media outlets local Super PACs are an issue worth focusing on, calling out the outside groups in editorials and letters to the editor, and letting third-party validators know the message they’re seeing and hearing is tainted. The communications focus should be on developing solid lines of attack meant to undercut the outside group’s message.
Super PACs are targets just as much as the candidates they support, so the simplest tactic may be tying the problems of their donors or the corporations that fund them to your opponent. If a donor’s a polluter, go after the opponent on pollution. If a donor has a criminal record, make it public knowledge. As these strategies catch on, local campaigns may very well become whistleblowers, says Devine.