Super PAC Spending Becoming More Bipartisan

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By Llewellyn Hinkes-Jones

July 11 — Groups simultaneously funding Republican and Democratic super political action committees are becoming increasingly common, a Bloomberg BNA analysis of Federal Election Commission reports has found.

Rather than giving to support a single candidate, issue or party, more donors are giving to support both sides of the aisle through outside spending.

For donations greater than $5,000, total giving by donors that gave a significant amount of their funds to both liberal and conservative super PACs increased over five times from 2012 to 2014, going from $240,000 to $1.3 million.

While the total number of large-scale bipartisan super PAC donors remains small—fewer than 20 in each election cycle—the number has doubled since 2012.

The donors involved in such bipartisan giving run the gamut from industry advocacy groups and labor unions to law firms and Native American groups, which appear to be turning to super PAC donations as a way to advance their policy agendas.

Issue Lobbying, Access Lobbying

In most of the cases that Bloomberg BNA analyzed, organizations spent money on targeted, issue lobbying—that is, funding various super PACs representing different candidates on both sides of the aisle who supported the donors' positions on issues related to their interests.

In some cases, though, the bipartisan giving went to access lobbying, which takes a broader approach toward influence. One example was the Entertainment Software Association (ESA), an advocacy organization for the video game industry. Its members include Electronic Arts Inc., Nintendo Co. Ltd., Sony Interactive Entertainment and dozens of other companies.

In May, the video game association gave $100,000 each to the main super PACs for the Senate: the Senate Leadership Fund, which is linked to Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and supports Republican senators and candidates; and the Senate Majority PAC, which is connected to Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and backs Democrats.

At the same time, the association also gave the same amount to each party's main House super PACs—the Democrats' House Majority PAC and Republicans' Congressional Leadership Fund.

The following month, an amendment calling for a study of violence in video games was voted down on the Senate floor (S. Amdt. 4751 to H.R. 2578).

ESA’s donations parallel the kind of access lobbying supported by contributions to traditional PACs. These PACs take limited contributions and in turn give money directly to candidates, or to presidential convention accounts, where funds are disbursed to the opposing parties' convention committees in similar amounts. What's different about giving to super PACs is that amounts are not capped, and this unlimited funding can be used directly to influence particular races, so long as spending remains formally independent of the candidates' campaigns.

Vote on Video Game Measure

The current election cycle is not the first time super PACs have been used for indirect access lobbying. Both the American Society of Anesthesiologists and National Air Traffic Controllers Association gave parallel amounts to both House super PACs in 2014. AT&T and AFLAC did something similar in 2012.

ESA’s case differ from others, though, in that it was the first time such bipartisan super PAC giving has extended to the senatorial super PACs, not just the House.

ESA spokesman Dan Hewitt would not explain what the purpose was in simultaneously funding both parties' main congressional super PACs in equal amounts except to say that the association supports policy makers who appreciate the video game industry.

A June FEC report shows that the Senate Majority PAC spent over $9 million against Republican senators who voted for the amendment to review the violent effects of video games. The amendment was one of several offered unsuccessfully during a Senate debate in June regarding possible new gun control and other measures in the wake of a mass shooting in Orlando, Fla.

The Senate Democrats' super PAC has targeted one senator who voted against the amendment—Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.)—but has spent only a total of $384 in that race.

The New Normal

Paul S. Ryan, the deputy executive director of the nonprofit Campaign Legal Center and a critic of super PACs, called such bipartisan giving the “new normal” of electoral contributions, where more funding flows through super PACs to skirt spending limits.

“It shows that these super PACs are not being used for single issue advocacy so much as they are to buy influence,” he told Bloomberg BNA.

Ian Vandewalker—counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice, which has also has been critical of super PACs—said the growth in use of super PACs for access lobbying was predictable within the trajectory of campaign finance.

“More money is moving to super PACs because they don’t have finance limits,” he said. “It’s not surprising that the same lobbying that occurs with inside money would happen with outside money too.”

But, David Keating, president of the Center for Competitive Politics and architect behind the SpeechNow.org vs. FEC legal case that removed campaign finance limits for super PACs, had a contrary view. He didn't think bipartisan donations to super PACs would become popular.

“It doesn't make sense from a donor's point of view; it's not likely to generate much bang for the buck,” Keating told Bloomberg BNA.

He said super PACs are more geared toward targeted spending against a particular candidate or issue. True bipartisan spending would negate that tactic, unless the money came with earmarks—requirements that the money be spent in relation to positions a specific issue, Keating said. He added that, currently, there’s no way to enforce such earmarks.

Shadow Campaign in South Dakota

In at least one instance, bipartisan super PAC giving was used as an indirect way to fund a shadow campaign.

Every Voice, a nonprofit that supports stricter campaign finance laws, supports ballot initiatives and candidates aimed at reducing the power of money in politics, including campaign money's role in bipartisan access lobbying. In the 2014 South Dakota U.S. Senate race, the nonprofit used outside spending to try to elect Democrat Rick Weiland, a supporter of campaign finance regulation who ran to the left of President Barack Obama on a number of issues.

Every Vote spent over $1.2 million in 2014 through the group’s super PAC, Every Voice Action, supporting Weiland. He was running against the state's former governor, Republican Mike Rounds, and independent Larry Pressler.

However, possibly looking to split the vote among Weiland's opponents, the nonprofit also funded Gordon Howie, a Tea Party candidate staunchly opposed to campaign finance restrictions.

Every Voice gave $108,200 to Many True Conservatives, a right-wing super PAC that had registered with the FEC just a month before the election. That group, in turn, funded a radio, robocall, and mailer campaign supporting Howie, who was running as an independent. Every Voice’s funds made up 93 percent of the super PAC’s donations. Laura Friedenbach, a spokeswoman for Every Voice, told Bloomberg BNA that the funding was part of an effort to back Weiland.

‘Quixotic Footnote.'

During the race, Rounds was embroiled in an EB-5 visa scandal over alleged kickbacks for investors in a Northern Beef meatpacking plant. Pressler, an ex-congressman, entered the race late with little funding as a left-leaning independent because of an antipathy to partisan politics. He ran mainly on name recognition and rarely spoke about the EB-5 scandal.

In the end, Rounds won the election after Pressler split the Democratic vote. Howie received only about 3 percent of the vote.

According to Nathan Gonzales with The Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report, “Pressler was polling differently based on whether people remembered him as either a Republican or based on his more recent Democratic platform, taking votes from both Rounds and Weiland. It’s possible Every Voice funded Howie to split the Republican vote even further.”

Cory Allen Heidelberger, editor and publisher of the Dakota Free Press—a liberal news site that closely followed the 2014 campaign—told Bloomberg BNA he saw no evidence that funding an opposing candidate had an impact on the vote.

“Their effort appears to be a quixotic footnote rather than sensible investment of campaign dollars producing return on investment,” he said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Llewellyn Hinkes-Jones in Washington at ljones@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Kenneth P. Doyle in Washington at kdoyle@bna.com

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