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Who Needs One SuperPAC When You Can Have Four?

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz's campaign recently leaked claims that the four superPACs backing him would pull in $31 million in the campaign's first week.
Alex Wong
Getty Images
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz's campaign recently leaked claims that the four superPACs backing him would pull in $31 million in the campaign's first week.

As Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., prepared for his official announcement of a White House run, so had Conservative Solutions PAC. It's a superPAC focused exclusively on helping Rubio reach his goal.

Technically, Conservative Solutions has no ties to Rubio. His campaign can't coordinate messages or strategy with it.

But Rubio isn't the first to have a superPAC revving up at announcement time. Since 2010, when federal courts approved these "independent expenditure" groups, financed by unlimited but disclosed contributions, superPACs have gone from luxury to standard equipment for a serious presidential bid. It's changing the nature of presidential campaigns.

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who officially declared last month, is backed by not one but four superPACs, in a network: Keep The Promise, and Keep The Promise Nos. 1, 2 and 3. The Cruz camp leaked claims these PACs would pull in $31 million in their first week.

The treasurer for Keep the Promise didn't respond to several interview requests.

The Cruz network is just one of this year's developments in superPACs — apparently meant to give donors more control over the activities they're paying so handsomely for.

"Maybe certain donors want to talk about some issues but they don't want to talk about others," said David Keating, president of the conservative Center for Competitive Politics. "Could be other donors like certain tactics, and want to speak through, say, Internet ads as opposed to TV ads. Or maybe they want to do positive ads instead of negative ads."

Keating says superPACs are just a means for donors to exercise their First Amendment political speech.

Not only does Keating support superPACs; he's one of three plaintiffs who created them, with a federal lawsuit. They won a federal appellate court ruling following the Citizens United decision by the Supreme Court, which permitted independent political spending by corporations and unions.

The heavyweight superPAC of the Republican primaries is backing former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. In fact, Right To Rise, the superPAC, shares its name with Right To Rise PAC, which is directly linked to Bush. He's been soliciting money for both organizations.

At one superPAC event in New York City, the price of entry was $100,000. Bush aides have tried to dismiss rumors that the superPAC would raise $100 million by July 1, the cutoff date for its first public disclosure.

Bush says he's still just weighing the possibility of running.

The thing to keep in mind here is that regular contributions — the funds to candidates themselves — are capped at $2,700 per person.

It can seem a pittance compared with the unlimited contributions collected by superPACs. And that suggests the balance of power may be shifting, even more than before, to outside groups.

Ken Gross, one of Washington's top campaign finance lawyers, said, "This may be the election where we see more outside money than we see candidate money."

The current presidential election cycle is just the second since superPACs were invented, and things change fast.

"Everyone will get more and more inventive when the stakes are the highest," said Diana Dwyre, a political scientist at California State University, Chico, who has written about superPACs and other independent political groups.

"You know, it's evolution," she said, "and it's finding new ways to do this same kind of campaign activities that candidates and parties have been doing for hundreds of years."

At some point, presidential strategists may shift their allegiance from superPACs to 501(c)(4) "social welfare" groups; they offer freedom from donor disclosure, in addition to unlimited contributions. But the tax code prevents 501(c)(4)s from acting as purely political organizations. Worse, the IRS has a record of acting against 501(c)(4)s that seem intended to benefit one or a few individuals.

So, for this election cycle, the superPAC appears to be the new best friend of anyone running for president.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Peter Overby has covered Washington power, money, and influence since a foresighted NPR editor created the beat in 1994.