Why Super PACs Outspend Candidates


“Hell is paved with good intentions,” George Bernard Shaw wrote, “not bad ones.” And Shaw never wrote about the unintended consequences of American campaign finance law or the Florida GOP primary, which provide ample proof that the more good-government types try to regulate money and politics the more convoluted campaign finance becomes.

Mitt Romney won 46 percent of the vote in Florida; Newt Gingrich won 32 percent. Campaigns that support Romney outspent pro-Gingrich groups, $15 million versus $4 million. According to Politico, the pro-Romney political action committee Restore Our Future spent more ($8.5 million) on ads than the Romney campaign ($7 million). The pro-Newt PAC, Winning Our Future, spent $2 million, twice the campaign’s $1 million outlay.

Why did the super PACs spend more than the candidates’ own campaigns? Washington passed laws designed to curb the amount of money that big donors could shovel into presidential elections. It’s a noble cause, but it’s like passing a law against water flowing downhill. It was only a matter of time before election lawyers would figure out the loopholes and courts would stand up for political free speech. Two years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that unions and corporations have a right to unlimited political speech, which means that independent political campaigns not tied to candidates can go big casino.

It was the right ruling, according to senior attorney Steve Simpson of the libertarian-leaning Institute for Justice. But it created a problem: Candidates, Simpson noted, remain “saddled with contribution limits” — individuals can give a candidate no more than $2,500 per election — “while the super PACs can raise whatever they want. As a result, it’s difficult for the candidates to compete with super PACs.”

Thus, Las Vegas casino mogul Sheldon Adelson and his wife, Miriam, forked over $10 million to bankroll Winning Our Future.

This is how it works: Former aides and supporters of Romney’s and Gingrich’s have gone to work for super PACs that raise big bucks from rich donors. It’s legal, as long as the campaigns and the PACs don’t coordinate.

In January, when Restore Our Future hit Gingrich for his ties with Freddie Mac and Nancy Pelosi, Gingrich challenged Romney to tell the PAC to pull the ads. Quoth Gingrich: Romney “pretends he has nothing to do with the PAC; it’s baloney.”

Does that mean Gingrich coordinates with Winning Our Future?

“No,” replied Rick Tyler, a former Gingrich campaign aide and now with Winning Our Future. “He doesn’t talk to us.”

But Tyler argued that Romney’s super PAC would have pulled an ad if the candidate didn’t like it. And Tyler knows that because: “I listen very carefully to what Newt says in the media, because I want Winning Our Future to reflect the spirit of what he would want to have done.”

I asked Melanie Sloan of the left-leaning Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, D.C., whether she believes that super PAC staffers coordinate with presidential campaign staff. She believes that PAC-men adhere to the rules, but the technical definition of coordination is “really limited.”

Does it make you think, I asked, Washington should get rid of campaign contribution limits altogether? Sloan responded, “It makes me feel that we already have.”

Email Debra J. Saunders at [email protected]

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