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What role do state and county political party committees play in the era of the Super PAC?
By Michael Summers
Fort Wayne Reader
With both presidential candidates ignoring Indiana this election cycle, Hoosiers can perhaps console themselves with the thought that there are some entities on the national political stage that think we’re important enough to lavish with money and attention — namely, Political Action Committees.
As of this writing, Indiana ranks 4th in terms of dollars spent by PACs this election cycle, and unless you’ve studiously avoided all media for the last few months, you’ll probably be able to guess that it’s the Senate race between Republican Richard Mourdock and Democrat Joe Donnelly that has received the most money from outside groups.
In fact, according to the Wall Street Journal, among all the Senate races taking place in the US, Mourdock is the second most supported candidate in terms of PAC spending, with a little over $2 million spent on his behalf. He’s also ranks as the 8th “most opposed” candidate; PACS have spent over $3.5 million against Mourdock, though a big chunk of that came during the primaries when he faced off against long-time Senator Dick Lugar.
Mourdock’s Democratic opponent, Congressman Joe Donnelly, doesn’t rank in the Wall Street Journal’s “top 10” supported candidates, but he does make the “most opposed” list, coming in at number 10 with over $3 million spent.
Most of Mourdock’s support — over $1 million of it so far — comes from Freedomworks for America, the Super PAC founded by Dick Armey, Boyden Grey, and the late Jack Kemp. Freedomworks has also spent more than $330,000 opposing Donnelly. Another big spender on Mourdock’s side is Club for Growth, with over $600,000 spent supporting Mourdock and more than $1.7 million spent opposing Donnelly. Club For Growth’s president is Chris Chocola, former US Representative from Indiana’s 2nd district, who ran twice against Donnelly.
And there’s more to come. As the race came down to its final weeks, Club For Growth announced it would spend another $600,000 on ads against Joe Donnelly.
We have the Supreme Court’s controversial decision in the case of Citizen’s United vs. the FEC to thank for all this. When the Supreme Court handed down its verdict in January of 2010, it set the stage for a much different kind of political campaign, one that experts claimed would lead to practically unlimited amounts of money going to support — directly or indirectly — specific candidates in an election.
Most political analysts looked towards the 2012 election cycle to see how the full implications of the decision would play out in the real world, and when it’s finally over and the dust has cleared (as it may have by the time you read this), odds are that the race for the Indiana US Senate seat will be seen as a test case of how “these things can go.”
Just to be clear, the PAC money is independent of what the candidates have been able to raise for themselves and through other sources. By law, a candidate’s campaigns can’t coordinate with a PAC. Still, the money coming into the US Senate race in Indiana from outside is significant, and raises the question of what role the traditional party apparatus — not to mention a candidate’s campaign — plays in the era of PAC money. State and county party committees are responsible for choosing candidates, rallying the troops, and helping in some ways to raise money for the campaigns. Now, it seems a portion of those duties — especially the last one — have been co-opted by outside groups.
“These organizations have taken over the spending in competitive congressional races,” says Brian Howey, a veteran political journalist who publishes the daily Howey Politics Indiana blog (howeypolitics.com). “It used to be that the candidate would raise the lion’s share of the money. There might be something coming in from the state parties and the Democratic National Congressional Campaign Committee and the Republican Senatorial Committee and that kind of thing, but in this race, these ‘super PACs’ have made most of the campaign contributions to Joe Donnelly and Richard Mourdock. They’ve essentially outsourced their campaigns.”
Andy Downs of the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics says that the core function of state and local party committees — to raise awareness and get out the vote — will probably remain the same. “The outside groups show up once we know who the candidates are; the state party is there when candidates are getting recruited,” he explains. “That part of the chair’s power remains.”
Indeed, Pete Seat, the Communications Director for the Republican Party of Indiana, says that identifying and encouraging potential voters is the primary role of the state committee. “It's up to the candidates themselves to raise money for their operation,” Seat explains. “What we do is raise money to staff our headquarters and victory centers around the state. The majority of the money we raise is directly invested into our ground game operation around the state which supports all Republican candidates by identifying voters and encouraging them to vote.”
He adds: “While the support of a Political Action Committee may help in terms of television and radio advertising, our role is focused on the identification of voters and getting them to vote, so it's really a different beast.”
But some races require more help identifying and encouraging voters than others. Some of that outside money spent on behalf of a candidate might allow a state or county party committee to spend that money on other races. “However much money you have, you spread it where you can, and if you have the luxury of being able to spend it in a different way and put a focus on a new set of races, you do it,” Downs says.
Mike Wolf, Associate Professor of Political Science at IPFW who teaches a course in “outside” money in politics (we covered him in FWR #206) says that there are far more sources of money these days. He points to the Mitt Romney Victory Fund as an example. That fund typically collects a huge amount of money all at once. But because of federal law, the campaign itself is only able to accept some of that money. Another portion of it goes to the national Republican party, while another goes to the state parties. “So we have this interesting situation where outside groups are coming in, kind of over the heads of the state parties, and spending money,” Wolf says. “There’s money being raised and dumped into some state parties — not all, but some — that is independent, and with that probably some kind of pressure to keep with the party message more broadly. It also probably provides some level of freedom for the state parties as well.”
Yet there’s another aspect to outside influence in a political campaign that might be less beneficial to a state party committee — simply put, there’s more noise in the system. Steve Shine, the Chair of the Allen County Republican Party, says that getting a focused message out is now more problematic. “State and county party organizations now have to compete with outside organizations who have unlimited money and can seize that opportunity to be equal to or greater than the ‘official’ organization,” he says. “If you get 15 different PACs that are supporting some aspect of a candidacy, that becomes very confusing. With unlimited funds, they can sometimes trump the message the party is trying to get out.”
In some cases, the message a state or local party committee might want to focus on is overshadowed by larger issues with a more partisan tone. Mike Wolf says that a recent survey of county party chairs across the US indicated that they’ve noticed a more national message leaking into politics even at the county and local level. “It gets accentuated with this outside money,” Wolf says. “It nationalizes issues even more than you would normally expect, and provides clearer kind of divisions in partisan terms than maybe exist normally in state and local politics.”
Of course, associating your opponent with a “lightning-rod” political figure on the national stage might work just fine, but Steve Shine points out that there are dangers there, too. When it comes to the Senate race between Mourdock and Donnelly, Shine believes that over-saturation of campaign ads — many paid for by PACs — could have diluted the overall message. “It has become so drowning right now, and at some point that inoculates the voter,” he says. “After a while, it all becomes one long drone that nobody is paying attention to. In fact, the eerie music and grainy pictures are a cue to the viewer to turn the TV off.”
Shine stresses again that there are some aspects of the non-relationship/relationship between outside PACs that could be beneficial. For example, the state party committee could, theoretically, devote more resources to contests other than the one that PACs might be supporting. “But you would have to anticipate that a particular race might draw outside attention, thus eliminating the need for the state party have commercials for John Doe and therefore they could work on, say, Attorney General,” Shine says.
Now, to pause for a moment, an astute reader might notice a couple things. The first is that the figures on PAC spending in the Mourdock vs. Donnelly contest tilt more toward the right side of the political spectrum. The PAC money spent supporting Donnelly comes in at around $46,000, and while there has been over $3 million spent opposing Mourdock, most of that was spent during the primaries.
“Obviously, we’re in a different world here,” says Ben Ray, Press Secretary for the Indiana Democratic Party. “Citizens United lead to some fundamental changes both strategically and tactically in how we operate.”
Once again. the core function of the state party committee remains the same, he says: to raise money; to recruit and run good candidates; turn out voters on election day; etc. But to put it bluntly, the other side has a lot more money. “They have bottomless pockets, especially with those Republican 501c4s, which there’s really not a Democrat analog to,” Ray says. “If anything, the amount of money coming in has ratcheted the pressure up. You have to keep pace. When these outside organizations show up, it takes every bit of organization and strength and money we can muster to hang with them.”
The second thing: discussion of campaign finance rules is blooming with qualifiers — could, might, seems, theoretically, etc. That’s because this is all new. Has the role of state and county party committees changed in Indiana in the era of the super PACs? Yes. But… “The paint is wet here,” Mike Wolf says. “We don’t know quite what’s going on, and they may be spending in ways that are entirely new, and we don’t know what the effects of these things are.”
But trying to parse how new campaign finance laws could change the role of state and county party committees in Indiana might be beside the point. Many argue that there’s something inherently wrong with the presence of so much outside money, and that it changes the political process fundamentally and dramatically. Brian Howey thinks the whole situation is ripe for a scandal. “Chris Chocola (President of the Club For Growth) has this fantasy that it’s all transparent, but I don’t believe it is,” Howey says. “The thing is, if you go to the FEC site and go through, for example, (3rd District US Representative) Marlin Stutzman’s quarterly FEC report, you can see pretty quickly who donated to his campaign and how much. You go to the Club For Growth PAC, and try to figure out who donated money on behalf of the Mourdock campaign, it’s almost impossible.”
He is also doubtful of the claim that there is no coordination between the candidate and the supporting PACs, though he emphasizes that he has no evidence that any campaign laws have been broken. “In the strictest sense, there probably isn’t any coordination between, for example, the Mourdock campaign and Club For Growth, but there are other channels to coordinate that go beyond an official from a campaign and an official from a super PAC,” he says.
“As a watchdog, I’m skeptical,” Howey continues. “It just doesn’t make any business sense for someone to drop millions on behalf of some candidate, yet there’s no relationship there. I just find that astounding. No one would run a business like that, but I guess that’s the way we’re going to run our politics.”
Howey’s use of the future tense is probably accurate. No matter who wins Indiana’s Senate seat (and you may be reading this after November 6), the closeness of this race all but ensures we’ll see more of the same in our state six years from now, when either (a) conservatives muster their forces to go after a (perceived) vulnerable Democratic Senator; or (b) step in to ensure their Republican candidate’s re-election. And in between that, we have a few Congressional races, a race for a different Senate seat, another presidential campaign, and lots of primaries — all fertile ground for seeing just how much power and influence these organizations with “outside money” can wield.