Political Consulting Firms Made $1.4 Billion Simultaneously Working for Campaign Committees and ‘Independent’ Groups

Study Further Discredits Supreme Court’s Citizens United Decision, Makes Clear the Need for the Freedom to Vote Act

WASHINGTON, D.C. – A report released by Public Citizen today found that political consulting firms that worked for a candidate or political party, and simultaneously worked for an unregulated super PAC or other purportedly “independent” outside entity on the same electoral contests during the last two election cycles, received $1.4 billion for this potentially coordinated work.

“Political consulting firms are perfectly positioned to harmonize the message and strategies of campaigns and super PACs,” said Taylor Lincoln, research director of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division and author of the study. “The findings in this study add to the overwhelming evidence that campaign committees and outside groups frequently are not truly independent of one another.”

“The activities of these common vendors underscore what a mockery Citizens United has made of our campaign finance system,” said Lisa Gilbert, executive vice president of Public Citizen. “We need to pass the Freedom to Vote Act to stop consultants from acting as coordinators between candidates and super PACs.”

In its 2010 Citizens United decision, the U.S. Supreme Court greenlighted outside groups to receive and spend unlimited sums to influence elections. That decision was based on the court’s foundational assumption that outside groups could be counted on to act completely independently of candidates and political parties, and that there would be no coordination.

Payments to common vendors in the 2018 and 2020 election cycles totaled $771.4 million from candidate and party committees and $628.2 million from super PACs and other outside entities, according to the study, “Dual Agents.” Common-vendor payments for the 2020 presidential campaign totaled $526.7 million, equal to 38% of the spending documented in the study.

Public Citizen identified nearly 70 consulting firms that performed “common vendor” work for regulated and unregulated entities in the 2018 and 2020 elections. More than 90% of the money went to just 10 firms. More than $930 million went to Democratic consulting firm GMMB and two entities affiliated with it.

Among the additional findings in the study:

  • Six related consulting firms that work out of the same or adjacent addresses in Alexandria, Va., were paid more than $100 million for work on 14 electoral contests in which they served both regulated and unregulated political entities to benefit Republican candidates. These firms have been central to multiple complaints filed with the Federal Election Commission (FEC), but the commission has not acted on any of them.
  • The managing director of a consulting firm that accepted $8.6 million to work for the campaign committee of U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) and for several outside entities supporting McCaskill in 2018 previously served as digital director of her 2012 campaign.
  • A super PAC and the U.S. Senate campaign committee of James Renacci (R-Ohio) almost simultaneously launched attack ads against Renacci’s Democratic opponent in 2018. The same consulting firm worked for both entities and hosted the super PAC’s website on its web server.
  • In multiple instances, the same representatives of consulting firms signed advertising forms for buys on behalf of both candidates and super PACs assisting those candidates.

Several of the consulting firms that worked for both regulated and unregulated entities claim to have established “firewalls” that block the flow of information between people working for the different entities. But the public has no means to confirm the existence or the effectiveness of these systems.

Despite rampant and blatant evidence that candidates have worked in cahoots with super PACs, the FEC has not taken a single enforcement action for illegal coordination since Citizens United was handed down.

The Freedom to Vote Act, which is pending in Congress, would define cases in which vendors work for candidates and super PACs on the same contests as coordinated activities and, therefore, subject to normal campaign finance limits and restrictions. The bill would not offer exceptions to firms claiming to have segregated their work with “firewalls.”

The full report can be found here.