Are Super PACs Hurting Their Candidates More Than Helping?

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

One subplot of my story yesterday on Scott Walker’s troubles is the fact that two of his most trusted advisers can no longer talk to him.

Keith Gilkes, who ran Walker’s 2010 campaign and 2012 recall effort, and Stephan Thompson, who managed his 2014 reelection bid, are now in charge of Unintimidated PAC, the super PAC that backs Walker’s 2016 run. And since super PACs can’t coordinate with campaigns, Gilkes and Thompson can’t talk to Walker. In my conversations with Walker watchers in Wisconsin, this was a problem they cited repeatedly.

This is the weirdness of the campaign in the age of the super PAC:

The entities most responsible for creating and amplifying candidates’ messages are walled off from the candidates themselves. While they’re facilitating record fundraising, the rules governing their use are creating new complications.

Walker hasn’t been the only one affected. Jeb Bush’s super PAC, Right to Rise, raised $103 million in the first six months of the year and is run by veteran GOP adman Mike Murphy, a longtime Bush loyalist. Last month, the super PAC and the Bush campaign seemed to struggle to get on the same page about whether and how to attack Trump: Murphy told the Washington Post that the super PAC wasn’t going to spend money to bring down the flamboyant frontrunner—but Right to Rise then sent a plane to Trump’s Alabama rally with a banner reading “TRUMP 4 HIGHER TAXES. JEB 4 PREZ.” Since then, Bush himself has continued to criticize Trump, and the campaign has released anti-Trump videos, while the super PAC has sent mailers to Iowa and New Hampshire voters touting Bush’s record.

Who’s doing the positive ads? Who’s doing the negative ads? It’s hard to strategize on the fly when you can’t talk to each other.

Also, Rick Perry: The former Texas governor’s campaign is on life support—for a time, some staffers went without pay, and his New Hampshire effort was recently disbanded. But Perry’s super PAC is still flush, having raised $17 million. That money, however, can’t be used to pay staffers.

Super PACs may have unleashed an unprecedented flood of money into politics, as campaign finance reformers fear. But they’ve also created new complications for campaigns by parking the bulk of a candidate’s resources in an entity over which he or she has no control.