Outside groups have been a nuisance for Democratic strategist Tad Devine ever since his candidate was “swift-boated” during the 2004 presidential contest. Devine was a top adviser to Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) in an election year that serves as one of the most prominent early examples of a 527 group having a major impact at the national level.
The attacks on Kerry from Swift Boat Veterans for Truth—and the campaign’s lag in response—turned into one of the defining moments of the presidential race. Eight years later, the legal landscape has empowered outside groups to an extent never before seen, and many of Devine’s clients are still besieged—all the way down to the state legislative level.
“It’s really going beyond evolution,” says Devine. “The Supreme Court has empowered these Super PACs to become the dominant force in U.S. politics.”
Devine’s first taste of Super PAC involvement on the local level came during the 2010 cycle in North Carolina. His firm was doing media for a handful of state legislative candidates facing a well-funded outside effort to help Republicans take back the legislative chamber. The effort was led by Art Pope, a conservative multimillionaire and CEO of the discount-store conglomerate Variety Wholesalers. Pope funded the creation of Real Jobs NC, a 527, and Civitas Action, a 501 (c)(4).
The groups spent some $2.2 million across 22 state legislative races. The spending amounted to roughly $100,000 per race—the vast majority spent on mailers and TV ads hitting Democratic incumbents. The production value on the ads wasn’t exactly stellar, but the spending had a major impact. Of the 22 races Pope’s groups played in, 18 of the candidates he aided won.
One of the targets was former Democratic state Rep. Cullie Tarleton. A two-term incumbent, Tarleton lost his seat—51 percent to 48 percent— to Republican Jonathan Jordan, who was backed by Real Jobs NC.
“I don’t feel like I was defeated by the person I was running against,” says Tarleton, who’s hoping for some redemption this cycle. “I was defeated by Art Pope and his cronies, who bought themselves a legislature.”
Tarleton admits he was never prepared for, nor was he expecting, a sustained attack from a Super PAC—he remembers digging 26 negative mailers targeting him out of the garbage on a single trip to the post office. As an incumbent with high name recognition, Tarleton opted to run on his record and he went out of his way to avoid directly engaging Real Jobs NC, deciding not to respond to the group’s attacks tit-for-tat.
The Super PAC’s ads hitting him ran for just a couple of weeks, but they effectively painted Tarleton as a liberal Democrat out of step with the voters of his district. His big mistake: Tarleton simply watched it all happen. It’s something Tarleton vows not to do again as he’ll be the challenger this November.
The game plan this time, he says, is to combat the outside groups head on. The message: “The agenda that funded the Super PAC turned out to be the agenda of the legislature,” says Tarleton.
With one successful cycle already under their belts, outside groups in North Carolina are poised to pour even more money into this year’s legislative elections and they have some national help. In addition to the cash pumped in by Pope himself during the 2010 cycle, the Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC) accounted for a huge chunk of the money flowing to Real Jobs NC—more than $1.2 million, according to an analysis by the Institute for Southern Studies. In preparation for the 2012 elections, the RSLC has already sent $50,000 the group’s way. Spokesman Adam Temple wouldn’t say whether it is part of a concerted strategy by the RSLC to pump up conservative-friendly Super PACs in locales across the country, but more cash is likely coming.
Last spring, the attorney who set up Real Jobs NC founded a new group—the Carolina Business Coalition. A 501 (c)(6), the CBC established a 527 earlier this year for the purpose of promoting many of those newly elected Republican incumbents who have yet to cement their name recognition. Peter Barnes, a spokesman for the coalition, says it intends to spend around $350,000 this year on the 10 most heavily contested state legislative contests—the group has already spent $121,000 on state House races. Nine ads will begin airing in midsummer in an effort to help candidates brand themselves in their home districts.
“Our goal is to go out there and say, ‘If you’re going to vote the right way, you’ll have someone who’ll promote that,’” says Barnes.
The lesson for local candidates who haven’t already had to deal with outside groups, says Devine, is that Super PACs aren’t just looking to play on the federal level. With the campaign finance reins off, a company or wealthy donor in need of anything from a zoning change to a shift in local tax policy will increasingly look to Super PACs as their weapon of choice. And as they stretch down the ballot, Devine predicts the groups will gain a foothold in city and county-wide elections all across the country.
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.
Super PACs at the state and local level won’t just come in the form of business oriented groups with specific legislative goals. Another trend slowly developing—ideologically motivated Super PACs that are using smaller local campaigns just to get noticed. Liberty for All is one group trying to do just that.
A 21-year-old college student, John Ramsey, initially founded the 527 to back Texas Rep. Ron Paul’s presidential run.
But since then, Liberty for All has spent more than $500,000 running television ads in Kentucky supporting Republican Thomas Massie, who’s running in the state’s 4th Congressional District. More recently, the Super PAC began adding former aides from Paul’s New Hampshire staff to its roster and is working on developing a 501(c)(4) so it has an official political advocacy wing. While Liberty for All is still working up a list of 10 general election targets for this fall, one of its more interesting decisions is the group’s backing of Michael Cargill, a Democratic candidate for constable in Travis County, Texas.
He’s challenging incumbent Adan Ballesteros and has dubbed his opponent the “cocaine constable.” Cargill alleges the former Texas Department of Public Safety officer allowed 2,000 kilos of cocaine to cross the border from Mexico back in 1991, in addition to accepting cash gifts from drug cartels—claims Ballesteros vehemently denies. The allegation stems from a DPS investigation that resulted in Cargill’s dismissal from the agency some 14 years ago, but no charges were ever filed in the aftermath.
Politifact Texas dug into the claims being pushed by Cargill and Liberty for All, but couldn’t find enough to substantiate either side, leaving the claim unrated. Cargill was able to force the primary election to a runoff, set for July 31. Liberty for All, meanwhile, has spent more than $35,000 echoing Cargill’s “cocaine constable” message in campaign mailers.
“I’m hoping they’re going to be the tipping point,” says Cargill, who is welcoming the backing of the outside group. Liberty for All was drawn to Cargill’s cause because it views government as most relevant and unchecked at the local level, according to Preston Bates, the Super PAC’s executive director. But there’s another reason the group engaged in Cargill’s race.
“Local elections present opportunities to spend less money and have a long-run profound impact,” Bates says. “Plus, it’s good advertising for us.”
Despite their growing influence, a note of caution—state level Super PACs aren’t completely running amok. Many state-level groups still face regulation and a number of local campaign finance regimes are sorting out the post-Citizens United world with an eye toward curtailing the influence of such groups on the local level.
What is certain is that business and other local interests are increasingly headed the Super PAC route regardless of nuances in the rules governing them. Even in Arizona, where regulations on state-level Super PACs are more stringent, the groups are cropping up quickly.
The Tucson Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce has had a PAC since 1978, but it recently formed a certified Super PAC. After obtaining the 500 individual contributions of $10 or more, as required by state law, the Super PAC set up shop, says Robert Medler, the Metro Chamber’s vice president of government affairs. Medler expects the chamber will begin evaluating pro-business candidates in the coming weeks.
“When you look at chambers of commerce and business organizations, the players have a Super PAC,” says Medler. “It’s a status symbol.”
Dave Nyczepir is the staff writer at Campaigns & Elections