The Permanent Campaign: How Outside Money Is Changing the Way Governors Do Business

State executives and big-city mayors are using campaign funds and setting up nonprofits to push their issue agendas.

Gone are the days when governors appeared in ads only to boost state tourism. Campaign-style spending—and the slick ads it can buy—is becoming increasingly common for sitting governors, mayors, and other holders of high office.

It's a spillover from a recipe for election success that has become pervasive since the Supreme Court struck down campaign-finance rules: Raise mass quantities of outside money, often from undisclosed donors, and use it to fund outside campaigns that align closely with the views of the candidate. Now, after winning, officials across the country are applying the same strategy to governing, relying on outside money—and advocacy groups funded by that money—to push their legislative agenda.

At least three governors— and the mayors of New York City and Los Angeles—have taken steps since 2014 to raise and set aside campaign funds, or establish independent nonprofits, to push their legislative agendas. In practice, that means the kind of glossy messaging once reserved for campaign season.

In Florida, Gov. Rick Scott is reviving the same political committee that boosted his campaign efforts to run TV ads promoting his legislative agenda. In an ad launched earlier this week, Scott speaks directly to the camera to encourage support for his tax-cut plan: "We are expanding industries, investing in our ports, making a record commitment to preserving our environment, devoting more resources to education. Now, working with your legislators, we plan to cut taxes by half a billion dollars. We believe you can spend your money better than the government can."

In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio is recommitting to raising funds for his political nonprofit, the Campaign for One New York, with the purpose of using it as a center of gravity for paid media campaigns to spread his ideas and compete with the multimillion-dollar ad campaigns waged by his opponents. According to The New York Times, the de Blasio-backed ads will likely focus on public school funding and affordable housing.

All of these efforts have to comply with complicated and varying rules over how elected officials can raise and spend money, and the exact medium through which the officials conduct their permanent campaigns depends on the laws of the state or city in which they're operating.

In Nevada, Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval has an outside group raising and spending funds to support his agenda, because state law bans officials from raising money while the legislature is in session. But Scott as well as Illinois Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner aren't bound by such laws, so they're raising money through various campaign accounts. That means, however, that both will be required to disclose their donors in regularly filed reports.

These new efforts are a natural extension of the proliferation of campaign-ad spending seen over the last few election cycles, as well as a possible attempt to copy the issue-advocacy efforts of the pro-Obama Organizing for Action, said Elizabeth Wilner of Kantar Media, which tracks political spending.

"I think it's an interesting but not surprising outgrowth of what we've seen in the last couple of election cycles, between OFA pushing the president's agenda and wealthy donors wanting to contribute to ad campaigns to push agendas they agree with. I see it as kind of a confluence of those two trends," Wilner said.

But just as outside money in campaigns has raised questions of outsized influence among wealthy donors, corporations, and organizations, so has the influx of money into mid-governance issue advocacy. Political nonprofits, particularly the 501(c)(4) organizations like those supporting de Blasio and Sandoval, have come under scrutiny from good-government groups for their lack of transparency. Disclosure laws for such groups are less stringent, if they exist at all, and they can serve as a vehicle for corporations to contribute to candidates' efforts even if those same corporations are banned from donating to candidates directly.

Under New York law, a 501(c)(4) group like de Blasio's can raise unlimited amounts of money and has to disclose donors only once a year. An iteration of the group spent $2 million last year pushing de Blasio's plan for universal pre-kindergarten.

Initiatives of this scale aren't totally unprecedented. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo ran TV ads touting his policy accomplishments throughout much of his first term through entities including a nonprofit called the Committee to Save New York, which raised $17 million to run ads on his behalf, and later ran ads in partnership with the New York State Democratic Committee.

Beyond money and geography, there's another reason why such a disparate group of people could now be pursuing this path of taking their message and its dissemination into their own hands. Parties have increasingly become coalitions of interest groups, and those coalitions don't necessarily offer natural allies to moderate figures like Cuomo, a pro-business Democrat who hasn't been able to rely on outside groups, particularly labor unions, that have come to advocate on behalf of more partisan causes.

As governors and mayors look to ramp up spending on issue campaigns, what success they'll find remains an open question. One of the biggest problems with issue-focused campaigns is that they don't always offer donors as clear and decisive a bang for their buck as elections. Wilner pointed out that the TV ads run by OFA, for example, raised real questions about what they accomplished beyond giving the group a bigger megaphone to cut through the noise.

Passing legislation would be the clearest mark of success for mayors and governors, but Wilner warned that "a lot of the time the legislative process has become so blurred that you don't get clear verdicts like that—on whether money spent on ads succeeded or not. This isn't necessarily like an election campaign, where at the end of the day you win or you lose."

How it looks on the ground

Scott took a rare move in early March by soliciting donations from top bundlers for an ad campaign advocating for his legislative agenda, which includes a tax-cut package that's proven unpopular among some Florida Republicans. The funds are going to Scott's political committee, Let's Get to Work, the same group through which he raised and spent millions on his 2014 reelection bid. The committee can accept unlimited amounts of money from individuals, though there are some restrictions on who can donate. All Florida political committees have to file disclosure reports on a regular basis.

Senior Scott adviser Brecht Heuchan said the reaction from donors has been positive, and he said he doesn't get the sense that anyone feels squeezed after helping Scott raise tens of millions for a reelection race that featured a seemingly endless deluge of TV ads. "The notes that I've seen have been incredibly complimentary of the ad itself, and just of the whole notion that we ought to be taking these issues to the people," Heuchan said.

In Illinois, Rauner set aside $20 million in his campaign account for this endeavor, and the money came from a $10 million personal contribution, along with $8 million from Citadel CEO Ken Griffin and $2 million from wealthy GOP donor Richard Uihlein.

The timing of the donations from Griffin and Uihlein was strategic, in that it fell before the end of the 2014 Illinois campaign cycle on Dec. 31. Up until that point, Rauner was able to solicit multimillion-dollar individual contributions to his campaign account because he had personally donated more than $250,000 to his campaign, effectively eliminating donation caps for everyone in the race. Starting Jan. 1, the limit dropped back down to $5,400 and Rauner won't be able to scrap it again by way of a large personal contribution until March 2017, one year out from his next primary election.

Perhaps because of the new limitations on fundraising for that particular account, Crain's Chicago Business reported in December that sources close to Rauner believed the cash infusion was "part of a 'multipronged effort' in which other funding vehicles will be formed," and called the effort "the tip of the iceberg."

And in Nevada, Sandoval's former campaign manager Jeremy Hughes set up a 501(c)(4) nonprofit called Nevada Can Do Better in February to advocate for the governor's education and tax plans, which have received pushback from Republicans in the legislature. Sandoval has demonstrated himself to be a rare Republican willing to push for tax increases, and it has roiled many within his own party. Sandoval's positions have left him without many natural partisan allies, not unlike Cuomo.