Super PACs – A California Specialty Goes National

Tony Quinn
Political Analyst

California has come to Iowa, and maybe the nation.  The most striking result in Iowa was the collapse of Newt Gingrich.  As recently as December 6, he led the field for the Iowa GOP caucuses by 13 points; he was ahead in every national poll from November 13 until December 19 – and then it all ended.

Newt was the victim of a new phenomenon in American politics, the “Super PAC”.  The Super PAC can raise money from any source, and most importantly, it can spend unlimited amounts of money on behalf of any candidate as long as “independent” of the candidate.  In Newt’s case, a Super PAC called Restore Our Future, funded by Mitt Romney supporters, spent $3 million attacking Gingrich in Iowa the weeks leading up to the January 3 caucuses.  One of the more effective ads talked about Newt’s “ton of baggage”, including ethics charges, while bags rolled onto an airport carousel.

Super PACs are an outgrowth of a 2010 US Supreme Court ruling called Citizens United that said corporations, unions or anyone else could spend unlimited funds on independent expenditures.  The ruling set off howls from liberal campaign finance reformers that unlimited campaign funds would wash over American politics.  This is not entirely untrue, but money can only take you so far.  After all, Newt did have lots of baggage. And despite the huge expenditures of the Romney Super PAC, it was the nearly unknown Rick Santorum who benefited.

Super PACVs might be new nationally, but they are very common in California, although not under that name.  Here they are called independent expenditure committees, and they have been legal in California for decades.  To see how they will work nationally, look at how they work in California.

First, they operate in an atmosphere where the money a candidate can raise is limited.  At the federal level it is just $2,500 from a single donor; in California it is a little over $3,000 in a legislative race and $20,000 or so for governor.

Second, they are most effective in supplementing an already effective political operation, as was the case in Iowa and has been the case here.  In 2010, Democratic candidate Jerry Brown faced multi-millionaire Meg Whitman, who was spending her own money without any limits.  Brown obviously could not keep up, but his Super PACs could, and a variety of independent expenditure committees funded largely by labor and public employees spent more than $25 million on his behalf.

But that independent spending, while helpful to Brown, was not decisive in his victory in the end.  Whitman actually spent too much and her campaign was mostly over once it was revealed she had hired an illegal alien maid.  Also in Iowa, money was less decisive.  Texas Gov. Rick Perry burst onto the scene last summer as the temporary Republican front runner, but his consultants convinced him all he needed to do was raise money; don’t waste time on debate preparation or on meeting with the media.  The ill-prepared Perry collapsed and he ran fifth, even worse than Gingrich.

The role of Super PACs will be much debated, especially after the Gingrich take down in Iowa.  Campaign reform types that constantly warn about money in politics were not much bothered by the Jerry Brown Super PACs, which came from labor, but they work themselves into a tizzy over corporate spending, as we saw in Iowa and will see through the rest of the GOP primaries, and surely in the fall campaign.

But Super PACs/independent expenditures need to be kept in context.  They would not be there if candidates themselves could raise unlimited amounts, and disclosure would be better if the money was flowing through candidate campaign committees, not shadowy PACs.   And, as the good folks in Iowa proved, sometime independent expenditures do expose candidate flaws that need exposing, and enhance the ability of voters to make sensible decisions.

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