After former GOP hopeful Jeb Bush’s well-financed super PAC failed to save his campaign during the 2016 Republican primary, it’s tempting to think these organizations are not the nefarious forces they were once feared to be.
After all, the former governor of Florida’s Right to Rise super PAC had a budget of more than $116 million to use against his adversaries. Bush still stumbled badly during the summer and continued his free fall as the race intensified prior to the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary. He failed to do well in either contest and dropped out after a dismal showing in South Carolina. Not a single Right to Rise dollar seemed to be well-spent.
But while a super PAC may not make a candidate, it can still, if used effectively, upend one. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio's struggles in this primary are partly due to the sheer number of ads that super PACs tied to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) have run against him.
The best example of the destructive power of a super PAC -- an outside group that can accept unlimited donations but can't legally coordinate with the campaigns it supports -- remains Newt Gingrich.
The former House speaker was riding high off his victory in the South Carolina Republican primary in the 2012 election when the contest turned to Florida. For several weeks, Restore Our Future, a super PAC supporting eventual GOP nominee Mitt Romney, spent more than $15 million in ads, 92 percent of them aimed at Gingrich. All told, Restore Our Future ran 12,768 ads against Gingrich, compared to the 210 ads that Gingrich aired against Romney. It was a bloodbath, as Gingrich recalled in this week’s episode of "Candidate Confessional".
"We were a mid-sized college team in the Super Bowl, and so, in that sense, we were in trouble," Gingrich said.
More than just the sheer size of the ad buys, Gingrich blamed his campaign's death in Florida to the vitriol of the assault.
"There was this article in The New York Times, I think two or three days after South Carolina, where they quote a Romney conference call on Sunday morning where one of his folks says, 'If you do not eviscerate Gingrich, he’s gonna be the nominee,'" Gingrich said.
"Now, I’ve been a very tough person my whole life and I don’t mind being tough," he added. "But 'eviscerate' is really strong. And when I look back, the fact that they ran a commercial saying I favored the Chinese one-child policy because I voted for the IMF or the World Bank ... I mean, there is a certain zone there."
Gingrich said that he got too tired from the incoming to keep the momentum going after South Carolina. And, as it happens, he had several of his poorest debate performances of the campaign during the lead-up to the Florida primary. When he ultimately floundered, he became the first victim of a super PAC -- which came into existence after the Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United ruling -- in presidential campaign history.
“It’s kind of cool," Gingrich said of that rather dubious honor. "Remember, I’m a historian. I’ll always be a little footnote in these books."