Super PACs and other unrestricted groups have moved beyond the presidential campaign trail to target key House and Senate races, and Congressional candidates don’t know whether to laugh or cry.
Several candidates have asked their opponents to pledge to bar super PACs and similar third-party groups from their races, emulating the pact signed in January by Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) and his Democratic challenger, Elizabeth Warren.
Yet many House and Senate candidates who publicly decry super PACs are benefiting from the outside groups that back them. Some lawmakers are even donating to or helping raise money for super PACs, which are more likely to tilt close House and Senate contests than the presidential race.
Congressional candidates’ love-hate relationship with super PACs has fueled squabbles and campaign attacks in California, Missouri, Montana and Virginia, as outside groups pour millions of dollars into House and Senate contests. Top spenders include the League of Conservation Voters, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the GOP nonprofit Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies.
“Montana is a state that takes great pride in transparency in government, and this just goes against that,” said Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), whose campaign estimates that he’s been hit with about $1.4 million worth of outside ads. Tester tried without success to persuade his opponent, Rep. Denny Rehberg (R), to agree with him to pay a penalty when any third-party group got involved in the race.
Tester is one of five Senators targeted in a $1.8 million ad campaign by Crossroads GPS, which as a nonprofit faces no disclosure requirements. The Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling ushered in unrestricted super PACs and has boosted donations to politically active nonprofits.
Rehberg’s campaign countered that Tester’s allies, including labor, environmental and women’s groups, have spent more than $1 million in the race. Rehberg proposed that he and Tester refund all donations from political action committees and lobbyists and raise money only in Montana.
Tester, who relies heavily on lobbyist donations, said that would leave him no way to respond to third-party attacks. But he also told Roll Call that he would welcome outside spenders who backed him: “I’m hoping that there are some PACs out there that will support me.”
Similar attempts at “no super PAC” pledges have fallen flat in California and Virginia. Former Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine (D) told a debate moderator that he would “agree to it tomorrow” if he and former Sen. George Allen (R), his opponent in the open-seat race, could nix outside spending. Allen responded during the forum that such a pledge would tread on free speech.
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., takes a selfie with his cut-out head during the Hoops for Youth 16th annual charity basketball game held at George Washington University's Smith Center, September 8, 2014. The members of Congress team beat the lobbyist team 46-40. Buy photo here.