It is impossible to divine the mission of the American Foundations Committee from its website. Below scenes of the Founders, bullet points decry excessive entitlements, soaring debt, an unfair tax code, and excessive regulation. At the bottom of the home page, bracketed by pictures of Independence Hall and Abraham Lincoln, is a request for donations to support candidates who share the group's vision.
The American Foundations Committee is an independent expenditure-only political action committee, commonly known as a super PAC. What makes it different from the super PACs you've heard so much about in this campaign, such as American Crossroads affiliated with Karl Rove, is that it is supporting just one candidate: Republican George Holding, a former U.S. attorney running for Congress in North Carolina's 13th District. That is the group's sole purpose. It provides the most dramatic early example of super PACs backing a single House candidate, akin to the super PACs that sprang up this election cycle solely to support certain presidential candidates and a few marquee Senate hopefuls.
More than $400,000 of the donations to the American Foundations Committee have come from six people named Holding, suggesting a certain family tie. And AFC has spent some $535,000 of the at least $563,000 it has raised on a stream of television ads blasting Holding's main rival in the May 8 GOP primary, former Raleigh Mayor Paul Coble, a nephew of the late Sen. Jesse Helms. "This is a guy whose family wants to buy him a seat in Congress," Coble complains.
Asked about AFC at a debate last weekend, Holding said it didn't constitute special-interest support, which he has decried. "It's funded by my relatives and some very old family friends," Holding said. "If you can't get support from your family and friends, who are you going to get support from?"
Critics of these new super PACs worry that as more local donors and kingmakers realize how much they can influence House races, they will change the character of House elections nationwide. Thus far, few district-specific super PACs have been active. Besides AFC, one is raising money for Thomas Massie, a Republican running for the Kentucky seat vacated by retiring GOP Rep. Geoff Davis. The single-member super PACs are not a GOP-only phenomenon, either: Rep. Howard Berman, who is competing with fellow Democratic Rep. Brad Sherman in a marquee member-versus-member race in Los Angeles, can count on the support of at least one super PAC that is fundraising just for him.
Their scale varies, too. The pro-Holding super PAC spent $535,000 through the end of April, and the pro-Berman organization this week placed a $500,000 ad buy in his district. The group supporting Massie in Kentucky, by contrast, has spent a relatively paltry $27,000 on direct mail.
But in House primaries, a little goes a long way. In Massie's case, the mail buy was more than one-sixth of his cumulative campaign spending. A similar expenditure by Massie's campaign would have taken 10 maximum contributions, plus some. The pro-Massie PAC, Americans for Growth, Opportunity, and Prosperity, raised more than $20,000 from just two donors.
That is why observers of House races expect such groups to proliferate in this election cycle and down the road. "It's just a logical extension of what we've seen in the presidential race," says Mark Longabaugh, a Democratic media consultant — except that the smaller scale of House races makes the unlimited individual donations solicited by super PACs even more valuable. Expenditures of $20,000 or $30,000 can disappear quickly in a presidential battleground state or an important Senate contest. In crowded, low-budget House primaries, sums like that can boost name identification enough to dramatically enhance a candidate's chances of victory.
One-candidate super PACs fueled by unlimited donations also inject an element of surprise into congressional races. After the end of the first quarter, the pro-Berman Committee to Elect an Effective Valley Congressman reported less than $200,000 in the bank. Within a month, it reserved about $500,000 in TV time. Already, 439 super PACs are registered with the Federal Election Commission; many of them lie dormant. But tomorrow, any of those groups could unload funds they had built up quietly, quickly, or both, perhaps between FEC reporting dates — before a candidate even knew what hit him.
In North Carolina's 13th, Holding was already outspending Coble by more than 3-to-1, backed by Holding's wealth and connections. The American Foundation Committee's spending raises that ratio to more than 5-to-1. Coble has two decades of local-government experience and began the GOP contest as a favorite, but Holding has swamped him on TV.
Coble had no way of preparing for the extra half-million dollars that the super PAC has injected into the race since February. The onslaught came too quickly and on too large a scale for a traditional campaign to react to. "Truth is, I don't necessarily have a problem with PAC money," Coble says. "But everybody should play by the same rules."
If Holding wins the Republican nomination next week, he will have an imposing, super PAC-enabled advantage to thank, and it is a model for others in the era launched by the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision. The effectiveness of these groups will tempt other supporters to take the easy step of establishing a super PAC for their local House race.
The potential consequences are extensive and unpredictable. Personalized super PACs could embolden candidates without personal fortunes or access to high-powered fundraising, or they could fortify the influence that the wealthy already wield. The voices of the candidates could get lost as more and more outside groups clog the airwaves and voters' mailboxes with their messages. All of these outcomes and more are possible, but we can't know for sure what is coming until it has already happened — just as candidate Coble is discovering.