Feb. 13, 2016

IE Strategy Borders on Art Form

Today’s “independent expenditure” isn’t as independent as you might think.

As this fall’s battle for the House and Senate comes into focus, party strategists on both sides of the aisle can, and often do, communicate, even though there is a “wall” separating the official side of the parties’ campaign committees from their IE arms.

From designating funds for specific races to sharing opposition research, Republicans and Democrats are perfecting the art of communicating without coordinating. Sometimes operatives communicate privately, using in-house counsels as the conduit, while other information is shared through less-traveled regions of the Web.

Party strategists are careful not to run afoul of the law — enacted as part of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 — because unlawful coordination can lead to jail time. But attorneys advising both parties have come to many of the same unspoken conclusions where the law isn’t specific.

Even though IE directors are technically free to spend money however and wherever they wish, the official side of a committee will release funds to the IE with a designation for a specific state or district. Rarely will a committee just hand over tens of millions of dollars, the bulk of which funds the massive fall TV ad campaigns, without direction.

“There is no black letter of the law on this,” according to one party operative.

It is clear that the official side can’t coordinate by telling the IE unit how to spend the money, but the committee can communicate through budgeting. If $10,000 is made available to the IE, that’s enough for a poll, something close to $100,000 could be for an immediate ad buy, while millions of dollars released at one time is probably a down payment on reserving ad time for the fall.

“It’s important to hire people you trust and know,” according to another party strategist. That’s why the IE units are directed by aides with an intricate knowledge of how the campaign committees operate — usually former staffers. For three-quarters of the election cycle, these aides are allowed to coordinate and work inside the committee, but in the spring before the elections, the “wall” goes up and the aides migrate to the separate IE operation until Election Day.

“Everything is handled through the lawyers,” according to one source. “They are the go-between.”

The attorneys notify the IE when funds are made available because the IE arm and the official committee continue to share a bank account throughout the elections.

The IE unit can ignore or disregard the direction given by the official side, but those consultants risk the wrath of the committee and jeopardize future opportunities for work. Ultimately, the committee doesn’t know how or where the money is spent until they see a “competitive,” the term used by strategists for the spreadsheet compiled by media buyers that lists ad time reserved or purchased in specific media markets over time.

Even though the committees can’t tell the IE what TV ads to run, they suggest talking points and share opposition research online.

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