Super PACs after 10 years: Often maligned but heavily used

Democrats may slam Citizens United, but they benefit from ad buys from the PACs the decision unleashed

A man demonstrates against super PACs in front of the Supreme Court in January 2012 to mark the second anniversary of the Citizens United decision, which contributed to the rise of super PACs. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
A man demonstrates against super PACs in front of the Supreme Court in January 2012 to mark the second anniversary of the Citizens United decision, which contributed to the rise of super PACs. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted January 16, 2020 at 5:30am

The reelection campaign of Rep. Angie Craig, a first-term Minnesota Democrat, kicked off 2020 with an email plea to supporters: “We’ve got to overturn Citizens United.”

Noting the 10 years since the pivotal Jan. 21, 2010, Supreme Court decision, which helped spur along super PACs, the Craig campaign urged people to show their allegiance to the cause by providing their email addresses. Later, would-be donors were asked to chip in money for her campaign, even just $15.  

Despite Craig’s opposition to the court decision, her candidacy has benefited from ad buys by super PACs. The solicitation from her campaign illustrates both the toxicity of big political money and the backlash to it that has led to a rise in small-dollar contributions. It also speaks to the tricky relationship Democrats have with super PACs: They say they want to do away with them, but the party relies heavily on them too. 

A decade in, it’s clear super PACs will play a significant role in 2020, from the presidential contests to Senate and House races — and in both parties. 

“We’re on track to have record-breaking super PAC spending,” said Michael Toner, who leads the election law and government ethics practice at law firm Wiley. 

Super PAC-01

The term super PACs refers to political action committees that are theoretically independent of any particular candidate but can raise and spend unlimited sums on behalf of, or in opposition to, political candidates. Super PACs can raise funds from individuals, corporations and unions but are not permitted to coordinate their spending with candidates. 

Super PACs do disclose their donors, unlike some nonprofit organizations that also engage in electioneering. But super PAC donors can remain hidden in some circumstances, such as when individuals give money through a company or other group. 

Even as Democrats seek to distance themselves from big political money with many disavowing super PACs, the funds have cropped up in support of several of the party’s presidential candidates, including former Vice President Joe Biden and entrepreneur Andrew Yang. The now-suspended bids of New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee also had super PAC support. 

For Republicans, President Donald Trump has multiple super PACs, or hybrid PACs with a super PAC arm, that are already blanketing the country with electioneering messages. 

The Democratic super PAC, Priorities USA, has pledged to spend $150 million opposing Trump, all before the party’s mid-July nominating convention. 

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Down-ballot impacts

Toner, a Republican former chairman of the Federal Election Commission, said the presidential campaigns will drive much of the super PAC spending but so will marquee Senate races in states such as Maine, Iowa, Colorado, Arizona and North Carolina. House races, too, are likely to see an uptick in super PAC spending, he predicts. 

“We are definitely seeing an increase in candidate-specific super PACs down ballot,” Toner said. “At the U.S. Senate or U.S. House level, if you’ve got a well-funded super PAC, it can have a big impact.”  

So far in the 2019-2020 cycle, super PACs have raised nearly $200 million and spent just more than $20 million, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks political spending. The group tabulated that super PACs hauled in about $1.6 billion in the 2017-2018 election cycle, which didn’t feature a presidential race. 

A new super PAC cropped up recently in the Arizona Senate race to attack GOP incumbent Martha McSally, with recent TV and digital spots calling her a flip-flopper on policy issues.

Even though that super PAC is helping Democrats in their effort to win McSally’s seat, Democrats on Capitol Hill and on the campaign trail continue to rail against super PACs and the 2010 Citizens United decision. Speaker Nancy Pelosi and a collection of other members marked the anniversary with a Tuesday press conference that also included Tiffany Muller, president of End Citizens United, a PAC (not a super PAC) that opposes the court decision and contributes to Democrats. 

“Overturning Citizens United is really important to voters writ large, especially Democratic primary voters,” Muller told CQ Roll Call. “They don’t like super PACs.”

She added that voters view campaigns fueled by small donations of $5 and $10 as a sign that those candidates are reaching out to ordinary Americans, whereas bigger donations from wealthy individuals and corporations, “those are given because something is expected.”

Democrats’ dueling messages, opposing super PACs while also benefiting from them, open them to charges of “total hypocrisy,” said campaign finance lawyer Cleta Mitchell, a Republican. “They try to have it both ways.”

But Maryland Democratic Rep. John Sarbanes, who has taken a leading role on the Hill to overhaul the campaign finance system, said members of his party are working toward change. 

“Look, the big money finds everybody in our system right now,” he said during the press conference with Pelosi. “It finds Democrats, it finds Republicans, it finds independents. The question is: Which is the party that’s actually standing up and trying to change the system? There are no Republicans here.”

Recent polling indicates that most Americans, regardless of their partisan affiliation, view the political money status quo as unsavory. Nearly half (47 percent) of independent voters and 38 percent of all respondents said the influence of big money from corporations and special interests in the nation’s politics amounted to an “extremely serious problem,” according to poll by the Campaign Legal Center, a campaign finance overhaul group. 

‘Corporate’ cash 

Though super PACs have become synonymous with corporate cash — and definitely may accept unlimited money from corporations — most public companies shy away from such funds, according to campaign finance records and a regular survey by the Public Affairs Council. 

The group’s annual benchmarking report, which surveys the political activities of corporations, has found consistently in recent years that 95 percent of companies have not donated to any super PAC, said Kristin Brackemyre, director of PAC and government relations at the council. 

“I’m definitely expecting in 2020 that won’t change just because of how volatile the political environment is,” Brackemyre said. “At this moment in time when there is such a spotlight on political giving, most don’t want to give to super PACs. A major reason is reputational risk.”

The Center for Responsive Politics has come to the same conclusion based on its analysis of FEC data, finding that just 10 individual donors accounted for more than $1 billion in donations since super PACs entered the scene, including casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and his wife, Miriam, who give to Republicans; as well as Democratic presidential contenders Tom Steyer (along with wife Kathryn Taylor) and former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg. 

Still, many super PACs have ties to corporate interests, such as lobbyists. A Boston-based lobbyist, Larry Rasky of Rasky Partners, was listed as treasurer of Unite the Country, a super PAC supporting Biden’s White House bid.  A former registered lobbyist, Jake Menges, is reportedly leading a pro-Trump super PAC dubbed Keep Florida Great.

‘Coordinating’

Though super PACs are, by their definition, supposed to be independent of candidates, there are ways to work around those restrictions, including through public communications and sharing content on websites. 

“The whole idea is that they are independent of the candidate, and that’s a joke,” said Meredith McGehee, executive director of Issue One, a nonpartisan group that seeks to reduce the influence of money on politics. The group released a report this week on ways candidates and outside groups may evade anti-corruption laws.  

The report cites numerous Republican and Democratic examples of possible efforts to coordinate, including one by the Angie Craig campaign, showing links to “b-roll” video that the campaign posted online that a super PAC, Independence USA, later used in a spot supporting her candidacy. 

The Craig campaign did not respond to a request seeking comment. 

Campaigns and outside groups also share common vendors, McGehee said, offering another possible avenue for coordination. 

“We’re now in a world where the candidates understand it makes sense to give a wink and a nod,” she added. “It can complement what you as a candidate are doing.”

House Democrats in Congress endorsed major changes to the current campaign finance system in voting for passage last year of a sweeping overhaul (HR 1) that included additional disclosures and tougher limits on possible coordination between super PACs and candidates. But the future of such an overhaul remains unclear, with no chance of moving in the GOP-controlled Senate — making political money a potential issue in the 2020 campaigns. 

Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen, blasted the legacy of the Citizens United decision during a Wednesday conference call with reporters. The court decision empowered a select few wealthy, mostly white, donors, he said. But, he added, “Citizens United, for all the extraordinary damage it has done, has also lit up a democracy movement” of small donors and activists who want to change the system.