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.
Anti-Kaine broadcast attacks by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Crossroads GPS have already topped $1.5 million, according to his campaign. Kaine is one of eight Senators and a dozen House Members targeted in a U.S. Chamber of Commerce ad campaign that by some estimates is in the $10 million range.
In California’s redrawn 30th district, where two incumbent Democrats are fighting over the same seat, Rep. Brad Sherman has made hay out of a $10,000 donation that a California utility implicated in a pipeline explosion made to one of two super PACs backing his opponent, Rep. Howard Berman. Sherman proposed a pledge aimed at silencing outside groups, but Berman demurred.
“We’ve been prepared to sign a document which would limit the influence of outside groups in this race,” said Parke Skelton, a Sherman campaign consultant.
“Congressman Berman is not only opposed to super PACs, but he has co-sponsored a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United,” a Berman spokeswoman responded.
The conflict between Berman’s public opposition to super PACs and his tacit acceptance of their support underscores Congressional ambivalence, particularly among Democrats. They have promised hearings and legislation to curb unrestricted money, yet even President Barack Obama has now dispatched surrogates and Cabinet members to raise cash for a super PAC backing him.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) have solicited money for Majority PAC and House Majority PAC, two super PACs backing House and Senate Democrats. Some Senate Democrats, including Barbara Boxer (Calif.) and Tim Johnson (S.D.), have also donated directly to Majority PAC from their personal leadership PACs.
“What I found unfortunate, and frankly, hypocritical, is that the other side complains about Citizens United — but when it benefits them, they are happy for it,” said GOP businessman Rob Cornilles, who partially blames a half-million dollars in spending by House Majority PAC and by the women’s PAC EMILY’s List for his January loss to now-Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D) in Oregon’s 1st district special election.
Not that Democrats are the only ones conflicted about outside spending.
Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) has had harsh words for the conservative group FreedomWorks, which spent about $300,000 on an anti-Hatch mailing. But an apparently pro-Hatch nonprofit dubbed Freedom Path has sent out its own mailer assailing two Republicans now challenging Hatch.
Republicans, too, are rounding up super PAC funds. Speaker John Boehner (Ohio) and other GOP House leaders have appeared at fundraisers in Washington, D.C., and Naples, Fla., for the Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC that backs House Republicans.
Some Democrats argue that GOP outside spending hands them a campaign weapon. The first TV ad put out by Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), who according to her campaign has faced $2.4 million in attack ads by groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Crossroads GPS, features dark, grainy images of the TV spots.
“They’re not from around here, spending millions to attack and attack,” an ominous voice intones. “But what they’re doing to Claire McCaskill is nothing compared to what their special interest agenda will do to you.”
Outside spending “will at best be a double-edged sword for Republicans,” one Democratic operative said. The same may hold true for Democrats torn between rejecting super PACs and embracing them.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., carries a musket on stage as he speaks during the American Conservative Union's Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at National Harbor, Md., on Thursday March 6, 2014.