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.
Opposition research is an expensive and time-consuming endeavor, and it’s one of the major services that the campaign committees provide to a candidate. In an effort to avoid the duplication of resources and to keep the party on message, the committees are sharing more and more of the information online.
Because the research is public, it isn’t considered coordination and all four Senate and House campaign committees have used a network of websites to communicate messages in the past and will likely do so again.
The websites might seem innocuous, but they are actively read by party strategists on both sides of the aisle and staffers in each committee are assigned to comb the sites each day for new information. “There is nothing illegal about it,” according to one GOP insider, who added that both sides use the tactic.
Up to this point this cycle, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has the most information online. Anyone can find it.
Here is how: From the group’s main page, go to “2012 races,” click on a state and click on a district that features a Republican candidate’s name. In many cases, you’ll find downloadable clipbooks, research books, links to raw video footage, and sometimes bulleted talking points. For example, anyone can access the 85-page research book on Arizona Republican Jesse Kelly or the 135-page file on California candidate Abel Maldonado (R).
Similarly, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has research attainable through a handful of clicks. From the committee’s home page, click on the Races tab, then “Read More” about a particular state, then “See what Republicans are doing in Ohio” (for example) and you’ll find a multipage PDF file with quotes and clips.
Republicans tend to use a slightly different tactic.
Last cycle, the National Republican Congressional Committee used a series of microsites that others call orphan sites because they were not directly linked to the group’s main site. Still, it is somewhat easy to find the information because the candidate’s name is used in the microsite.
This cycle the sites launched by Republicans include BarrowObama.com and TheHorsfordRules.com, referring to Rep. John Barrow (D-Ga.) and Nevada Democratic candidate Steven Horsford, respectively. Democrats believe that there are other sites either up or coming.
Last cycle, the National Republican Senatorial Committee had a series of sites that could be found by inserting a state as a subdomain — for example, kentucky.nrsc.org. The NRSC isn’t using a similar pattern this time or has not yet launched the same types of research sites.
This sharing of information can also help keep super PACs and the campaign committees on the same page. This week, Democratic aligned House Majority PAC aired a new television ad against Kelly in Arizona using footage from a campaign speech he gave in August 2010. That was seven months before the PAC came into existence, but the raw footage was available through a link from the DCCC’s site to a YouTube channel that features more than 300 video clips.
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.