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Helping Out a Friend

By Taylor Lincoln and Andrew Perez

By definition, super PACs are supposed to be independent from candidates and parties.

However, 45 percent of all super PACs spending more than $100,000 in 2014 did so on behalf of just one candidate. That finding was published in the latest installment in our series of reports quantifying the connections between candidates and outside groups.

The phenomenon of single-candidate super PACs is significant because it is unlikely that many groups would focus all of their efforts on helping just one congressional candidate if they did not have ties to him or her. And if the groups do have ties to candidates, they are not truly independent.

In its overreaching Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision in 2010, the Supreme Court chose to permit outside entities to spend at will from their treasuries on elections. This led to super PACs and other outside groups accepting unlimited contributions to influence elections. The court premised its decision on the assumption that spending by independent entities does not pose a risk of corrupting candidates. The risk of corruption is the basis on which the court has supported previous campaign finance restrictions.

The Center for Competitive Politics, which supports the Citizens United decision, promptly issued a response to our report, indicating both that there’s nothing notable about friends of candidates running super PACs and, anyways, any suspicion of coordination between the groups and candidates was just “the stuff of conspiracy theorists and hysterics.”

Our report does not level any allegations of coordination, a legal violation that can hardly be proven without being privy to private conversations. We do, however, allege that many single-candidate groups are not plausibly independent of the candidates they assisted. And that helping out a friend, as referenced by CCP, is a case in point for that thesis.

You be the judge:

Put Alaska First, a super PAC, supported the unsuccessful reelection campaign of former Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska). It was founded by a childhood friend of Begich who worked on one of his earlier races.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) received significant support from a super PAC and nonprofit whose personnel had extensive ties to his campaigns. For instance, a man who worked for both of these groups – Kentuckians for Strong Leadership and the Kentucky Opportunity Coalition – was a senior advisor on McConnell’s 2008 race.

The Committee to Elect an Independent Senate, a super PAC that backed the Senate campaign of Greg Orman (I-Kan.), was founded by a friend of his. They had previously created a nonprofit together.

Texans for Conservative Leadership, a super PAC that supported Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), was run by man who worked on his past two campaigns.

Priorities for Iowa, which backed the Senate campaign of Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) campaign, was run by an employee of a consulting firm whose founder was separately working for Ernst.

Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) received support from a super PAC that was primarily funded by his family members and run by a consultant who has known him for many years.

Georgians Together, a super PAC that backed Senate candidate Michelle Nunn (D-Ga.), was founded by a lawyer whose ties to the Nunn family stretch back decades. He worked for Nunn’s father in the 1980s and recently sat on the board of a charity she ran.

Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) was supported by Citizens for Conservative Leadership, a super PAC that employed his former chief of staff and two consultants who had worked for his campaign earlier in the election cycle .

Though our analysis doesn’t examine super PACs and nonprofits that back more than a single candidate, those groups can also have relationships with candidates that discredit the Supreme Court’s theory of independence.

For instance, one successful congressional candidate, Ryan Zinke (R-Mont.), founded a super PAC, Special Operations for America, that later supported his campaign. Zinke then hired the super PAC’s former treasurer to serve as his chief of staff in Washington, D.C.

In the end, it doesn’t really matter if the group’s violated the technical definition of coordination. Contributions to super PACs set up by the candidate’s allies are effectively the same as contributions to candidates, which is why they are just as likely to be corrupting.

Taylor Lincoln and Andrew Perez are the Research Director and Researcher for Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division.