Super Connected

Outside Electioneering Groups’ Ties to Candidates and Parties Discredit Foundational Premise of U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United Decision

By Taylor Lincoln and Andrew Perez

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Of super PACs spending a least $100,0001 in the 2014 elections, 45 percent devoted all of their resources to aiding a single candidate. [See Table 1] This conclusion adds to an already overwhelming body of evidence that many outside electioneering groups are not truly independent of the candidates or parties they seek to assist.

Table 1: Super PACs: Single-Candidate vs. Multi-Candidate Super PACs in the 2014 Congressional Elections*

An outside group’s devotion of its resources to aiding a single candidate serves as an indicator that the group is not truly independent, although does not provide conclusive proof. It is conceivable that some groups spending solely to assist a single candidate do so on their own accord, but it is unlikely that many would have chosen to focus on just one congressional race out of 468 general election contests — and many more primaries — absent ties between the outside group and the candidate that they assisted.

A look at the personnel of many of the groups that aided a single candidate in 2014 confirms suchsuspicions. Many of the groups’ leaders previously worked for the candidate that their groups aided or had other close connections to the candidate. Notably, some multi-candidate groups may have ties to candidates that belie their independence, but they are not captured in this report’s data.

Meanwhile, among outside electioneering groups that devoted their resources to aiding more than one candidate, this report identifies eight that appeared to be closely aligned with the missions of the Democratic or Republican parties. The groups categorized in this report as “party-aligned”demonstrated ties to a party beyond merely favoring candidates entirely from a single party, which could occur simply because a group’s mission overlaps with a widely held position of one party’scandidates.

The groups deemed in this report as party aligned appeared to exist for the overarching purpose of advancing a party. Many of these groups had mission statements of aiding a party or a specific party committee, such as the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. All of these groups were led by people who previously served as leadership figures for one of the parties, or had served as staffers for the national parties or for leadership figures in Congress.

Description of Group


Number of Groups

Percentage of Groups

Spending by Unregulated Groups

Percent of Money Spent

Single-Candidate Super PACs





Multi-Candidate Super PACs





Super PACs Total





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Though relatively few in number, the party-aligned groups accounted for nearly 31 percent of spending among electioneering groups permitted to accept unlimited contributions in the 2014 cycle. Single-candidate and party-aligned groups combined to account for 45.2 percent of spending by unrestricted outside groups in 2014. [See Table 2] [Note: The listing of all single-candidate groups in Table 2 includes five groups registered under Section 501(c) of the tax code, as well as those categorized as super PACs.]

Table 2: A Comparison of Spending by Single-Candidate and Party-Aligned Groups vs. Others in 2014 Elections


Number of Groups

Percentage of Groups


Spending by Unregulated Groups

Percentage of Money Spent

All Single-Candidate Groups





All Party-Aligned Groups





Subtotal: Single-Candidate and Party- Aligned Groups Total





Groups That Are Neither Single-Candidate Nor Party-Aligned





Total: Unregulated Groups







Conclusions that many outside groups are not truly independent of the candidates they assist would surprise few observers of electoral campaigns. Pundits routinely factor candidates’dedicated super PACs into their assessments of the candidates’ overall campaign war chests.

But incontrovertible evidence that many outside groups are not truly independent of the candidates they aid would virtually destroy any intellectual defense of the Supreme Court’s landmark 2010 decision in the case of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which opened the door for outside entities to use unlimited contributions to influence elections.

In Citizens United, the court relied on the assumption that outside spending entities are inherently independent of the candidates or parties they aim to assist. Further, the court presumed that independent expenditures do not pose nearly as significant of a risk of causing corruption as do a direct contributions to a candidate. The risk of corruption is the basis upon which the court had previously allowed most campaign finance restrictions. In Citizens United, the court deemed regulation of outside groups’ electioneering activities to be an unjustified infringement of First Amendment rights.

“Limits on independent expenditures have a chilling effect extending well beyond the Government’sinterest in preventing quid pro quo corruption,”3 the court wrote in Citizens United. “We now conclude that independent expenditures, including those made by corporations, do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption.”

In its Citizens United decision, the court did not question the legality of limits on contributions to candidates or parties. It even left the door open to revisiting whether Congress’s permission toregulate electioneering expenditures by outside entities (“independent expenditures”) shouldsubsequently be restored if evidence were to show that they posed a risk of causing corruption. In so doing, the court endorsed the corruption rationale it has used in the past to restrict the size of direct contributions.

“If elected officials succumb to improper influences from independent expenditures; if they surrender their best judgment; and if they put expediency before principle, then surely there is cause for concern,” the court wrote in Citizens United.“We must give weight to attempts byCongress to seek to dispel either the appearance or the reality of these influences.”

This report illustrates that many of the so-called independent groups that Citizens United has given rise to are essentially extensions of the candidates and parties that they spend on behalf of. As such, contributions to these groups are much like contributions directly to candidates and party committees, which were limited at $2,600 to a candidate per election and $74,600 to all national committees in 2014.7 (The “cromnibus” funding bill that was signed in mid-December 2014 raises corporations and unions, as well as individuals. See Federal Election Commission, Advisory Opinion 2010-11 (July 22, 2010), The cumulative effect of these decisions was to permit outside entities to use unlimited contributions from corporations, unions and individuals to influence the outcomes of elections. Entities that acknowledge a primary purpose of using unlimited contributions to influence elections are known as independent expenditure-only committees, or super PACs.

If one accepts the reasoning that an unlimited contribution to an outside group with ties to a candidate or party is much like an unlimited contribution to the candidate or party, he or she would find it virtually impossible to avoid reaching the conclusion that Citizens United has done what it did not purport to do: eviscerate the efficacy of laws restricting the size of direct contributions to candidates and parties.