Mine, All Mine: Single Candidate Super PACs, Creeping Down-ballot

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush jumped into the presidential race last year with the "shock and awe" funds of a huge super PAC behind him. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)


It used to be a must-have accessory for any presidential campaign.

Now, the deep-pocketed super PAC that is dedicated to supporting you, and only you, is more an integral part of a candidate's campaign machinery.

Republican Mitt Romney's Restore our Future poured $142 million into trying to defeat President Obama in 2012, while Priorities USA Action burned through $65 million supporting the incumbent.

In the 2016 cycle, Right to Rise USA's $87 million push for Jeb Bush and Conservative Solutions PAC's $55 million spent backing Sen. Marco Rubio kept the two groups ahead of all outside spenders even months after the candidates dropped out of the Republican primaries.

Priorities USA Action, repurposed as an engine for Hillary Clinton's White House bid this cycle, raised a record-breaking $176 million, although the group ended up spending a mere $132 million -- accounting for 76 percent of all outside money that went to support her this election.

As for Donald Trump, as with his campaign dollars, his super PAC support fell well short of that of his opponent. While there was some confusion about which of several super PACs had his blessing, even the biggest one dedicated to his election, Rebuilding America Now, spent just $19 million during the election, only 14 percent of what Clinton's super PAC spent. In total, 188 super PACs registered with the FEC to support or oppose one candidate this election cycle, nearly twice as many as in 2012. Only 89 of them made actual independent expenditures, though -- not far off from the 75 such groups that spent funds in the last presidential cycle.

Still, those 89 groups together spend $477.3 million, up 78 percent from the $268.6 million spent four years ago.

Although Priorities USA Action was the single biggest spender this cycle, the rest of the top 10 single-candidate super PACs were conservative, and 70 percent of all single-candidate outside money was spent to benefit conservative candidates.

Creeping into Congress

The main sources of outside money for congressional races were party-linked super PACs: the Senate Leadership Fund, Senate Majority PAC, House Majority PAC and the Congressional Leadership Fund. Still, single-candidate super PACs that aren't linked to a party's apparatus have become a big part of funding for candidates in the most heated Senate contests.

The biggest spending single-candidate group below the presidential level was Granite State Solutions, which paid out $21 million in a vain effort keep vulnerable Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte's New Hampshire Senate seat; that race, won by Democrat Maggie Hassan, was the second most expensive in Congress this year.

In Ohio, Fighting for Ohio Fund's $9.3 million backing of Republican incumbent Sen. Rob Portman was more successful, as Portman held off Democrat Ted Strickland. The Ohio Senate race was another money pit, bringing a total of $83.8 million in campaign and outside spending.

Prosperity for Pennsylvania for Republican Sen. Pat Toomey and New American Jobs Fund for Democrat Katie McGinty spent $3.6 million and $5.8 million, respectively, in Pennsylvania, the priciest race in the country; Toomey came out on top there.

The biggest single-candidate group at work in the House this year was Maryland USA, which spent $3.2 million in an unsuccessful effort to elect Republican Amie Hoeber in the 6th Congressional District in Maryland. Democrat Rep. John Delaney, who secured his third term on Tuesday, filed a complaint against Hoeber's campaign earlier this year, claiming the super PAC illegally coordinated with her campaign; almost all of the $2.1 million given to the group came from Hoeber's husband, Mark Epstein.

The Baltimore Sun reported that Hoeber's campaign had listed Epstein as an assistant treasurer but removed his name shortly before the super PAC started spending.

Independent v. coordinated

Super PACs can spend unlimited amount of money for political ads because, the Supreme Court has said, corporations, unions, and other outside groups are free to express independent political speech, in the form of money spent, for or against certain candidates. But they can't work in concert with a campaign -- that sort of coordination brings a greater risk of corruption, according to the court.

But the lines can get blurry when a group is aimed at supporting a single candidate, or when a super PAC has close connections with the candidate, like Maryland USA and Hoeber do. This year, we've seen campaigns and outside groups push the boundaries of the Federal Election Commission's rules defining coordination farther than ever.

Jeb Bush had a "phew" moment last year when he said in a radio interview, "We started to advertise - actually the Right to Rise PAC started to advertise, not our campaign." But his confusion may have been understandable -- the Bush campaign and the pro-Bush super PAC Right to Rise had both been using Wisecup Consulting LLC for "political strategy consulting," FEC reports show. The firm's president Trent Wisecup also served as the campaign's director of strategy.

According to the FEC, a campaign and an outside group can share a common agent as long as they don't share information.

More recently, the Campaign Legal Center filed a complaint with the FEC calling attention to potential coordination between Trump's campaign and Rebuilding America Now, as the pro-Trump super PAC was formed by two senior Trump aides right after they left his campaign.

FEC rules set a 120-day cooling-off period to keep former campaign staffers from bringing their knowledge elsewhere.