PACs Are Dead—Long Live Super PACs

With more money pouring into elections, traditional political-action committees are being forced to spend even more to stay relevant.
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Jason Reed/Reuters

The super-PAC era spawned many changes in political campaigns. Here’s another one: Traditional political-action committees are taking expensive steps to retain relevance in an age when the price of politics keeps soaring.

On top of writing their traditional four-figure checks to House and Senate candidates, a number of regular PACs are already pouring tens or hundreds of thousands into mail, TV, or other advertisements directly advocating for certain candidates. As outside spending has boomed this election, led by over $40 million from the conservative group Americans for Prosperity, regular PACs—including some run by potential presidential contenders in 2016—are trying to keep up with the Joneses.

For a political generation, White House aspirants from Al Gore to Barack Obama used leadership PACs to send $1,000 donations to candidates around the country, hoping to curry favor with local and national politicians whose support could come in handy during a presidential primary. But that kind of money doesn’t make as much of a dent in campaign costs as it once did.

“Leadership PACs are almost a thing of the past when you’ve got soft money out there able to write these kinds of checks,” says Terry Sullivan, the director of Senator Marco Rubio’s leadership PAC.

“$10,000 is great for a candidate, and they’re appreciative,” Sullivan continued. “But that and another $10 million is what they need to run a campaign. We wanted to be able to do more.… Under the current environment, that doesn’t make the kind of impact Marco wanted to make.”

That’s why Rubio’s group, Reclaim America, has stepped beyond the usual leadership PAC role. In addition to the $10,000 that Rubio’s PAC sent to Representative Tom Cotton’s Senate campaign in 2013, it directed another $18,000 to the Arkansan by soliciting and collecting money straight from Reclaim America donors. On top of that, Reclaim America spent another $200,000 airing its own pro-Cotton TV advertisement last fall as Democrats began attacking him.

Reclaim America also aired TV ads supporting Senator Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire as gun-control advocates went after her voting record last year, and the Rubio PAC just started running TV ads in support of Iowa Republican Senate candidate Joni Ernst this week.

Another potential 2016 presidential candidate, Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, did a similar thing last election, when his leadership PAC (Reinventing a New Direction, which—you guessed it—shortens to RAND PAC) spent $400,000 on ads bashing five Democrats running for Senate over foreign aid. Rubio’s group bundled donations for several Republican Senate candidates in 2012, too.

On the other side, more-conventional spreading of leadership PAC dollars seems to be down. The two leading potential Democratic presidential candidates, Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden, don’t have them. An array of pro-Clinton super PACs have already formed to marshal money on her behalf, including Ready for Hillary, which took a legal step this week that allows it to donate to candidates like a leadership PAC, while Biden is reportedly uninterested in forming a leadership PAC partly because of concerns about its impact.

You can count the candidates who have received donations from Rubio, Paul, or Senator Ted Cruz on two hands (though there is plenty of time left for them to give money), while New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s perch as chairman of the super-PAC-like Republican Governors Association offers a vehicle for raising and spending money that makes a leadership PAC redundant.

Several regular industry PACs have adopted souped-up outside spending strategies similar to those of Rubio and Paul. The American Society of Anesthesiologists has spent about $300,000 on independent expenditures this year, well ahead of its pace in 2010 and 2012, when almost all of its $620,000 in direct election spending came in the late summer and fall. The American Hospital Association PAC spent about $400,000 in early May to produce and air TV ads supporting Democratic Sens. Mark Begich in Alaska and Mark Pryor in Arkansas. That’s more money than the AHA spent on Senate races in either 2010 or 2012, coming all of six months before voters in either state will cast ballots.

But those states and many others have already seen millions of dollars in outside advertising, largely fueled by groups that can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money. In Louisiana, another red state represented by a Senate Democrat, outside groups had already spent about $9 million on advertising by the end of April, according to sources tracking media buys.

“There’s more money pumped in from outside than ever,” one PAC director said. “So if you want to have an effect and be helpful to a particular member, you can be more helpful by putting additional resources into the race. It’s not that $5,000 in the primary and $5,000 in the general aren’t still important … but I think a lot of people are thinking more about trying to make a difference in races that are in play.”

Independent expenditures by regular PACs cratered in 2010 as super PACs absorbed much of the burden of countering outside spending. But the subsequent rise in outside money this year has pushed regular PACs to open their wallets more in this election cycle.

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Scott Bland is the editor of National Journal's House Race Hotline.

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