As with every election cycle these days, super PACs are back in the news, along with the Get The Money Out Of Politics movement. The PACs are busy raising cash and trying to upgrade the profile of their preferred candidates, including Carly for America, the group supporting candidate Carly Fiorina. One of their events – a conference call – has attracted the attention of Huffington Post reporter Paul Blumenthal and he thinks he smells a rat.
Carly for America, the super PAC backing former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina’s presidential campaign, invited supporters to join a conference call on Thursday with — Carly Fiorina. Think this required any “coordination” between the supposedly independent super PAC and the candidate?
The email invite from the super PAC informs supporters that “Special Guest Republican Candidate for President Carly Fiorina” will be joining them. At the same time, it contains the necessary legal notice that Carly for America “is an independent expenditure committee and not authorized or coordinated with any federal candidate or candidate’s committee.”
There’s an implication here, though not an outright accusation, that the PAC must have “coordinated” with Fiorina to have her call in to the meeting. In the vernacular of the great, unwashed masses… duh. If you’re going to host a conference call for media and/or supporters and donors, wouldn’t it be a fairly obvious choice to have the candidate herself come and field questions? And you can’t really expect her to simply divine the scheduling of the call through psychic means, so somebody would have to contact her staff and see if she was free.
But Blumenthal himself goes on to admit that such contact doesn’t cross the line.
The problem is that federal campaign coordination laws ban only certain types of cooperation and association between candidates and supposedly independent groups. A candidate cannot have input on the content — text, video, imagery or other materials — or the conduct — strategy, timing or payment — of a communication. This leaves a lot of other activity open to the interpretation of the Federal Election Commission, which rarely enforces the anti-coordination rules in particular and at this moment is deeply divided on how to enforce its regulations overall.
Once you put that caveat in there it’s difficult to see what the point of the article was in the first place. There was no “input on the content… of a communication” here beyond the candidate speaking into a phone with her own voice and taking questions. It’s a silly suggestion. But it does remind us of the sad state of campaign finance laws.
The only reason super PACs even exist is because of relentless campaigns by activists who want to limit the voices of people who can afford to participate in campaigns. Without those miles and miles of regulations tying everything up. donors wouldn’t need to go through these sorts of channels. And are the rules actually effective in the first place? (That’s one point which the author makes which is at least worth discussion.) Considering how easy it is to avoid leaving a paper trail for these sorts of “coordinating activities” it’s easy to see how people could scoff. But for the most part, the super PACs don’t even need to take the risk. When they are formulating their message it certainly behooves them to be in tune with the candidate, but it’s not as if the candidate’s position and theme are exactly some sort of deep, dark secret. Turn on the TV and listen to a few of their speeches. Read their press releases. Visit their web site. You’ll figure out pretty quickly the direction you need to go and there isn’t a court in the land that could touch you.
Speaking strictly from personal experience, I can tell you that a congressional campaign I was working in 2010 picked up some “help” from American Crossroads during the summer before the election. They bought some ad time in all of our markets and were on the air shortly thereafter. As communications director, my phone began ringing immediately with calls from every newspaper and TV station in the district wanting to know what I thought about it, how it came about, and all the usual questions. I had to dutifully (and truthfully) tell them that I’d heard about it the same way they did… from the Wall Street Journal. Nobody from American Crossroads every contacted me during the entire course of the campaign. And while nobody can read into the depths of any other person’s heart, my candidate is one of the most honest and religious souls I personally know and he swore he’d never heard from them either. Of course, the ads were taking the same angles of attack on our opponent that we had for the most part, but that was no shock. It was all pretty standard material on the issues which polled well for us.
Fiorina hasn’t done anything wrong here and the suggestion that she or any other candidates have is rather dirty pool unless you can provide some evidence. If you really want to put an end to all these questions, perhaps chasing a fix for our restrictive campaign finance laws would be a better place to start.