Bachmann Super PAC typifies new election ground rulesby Catharine Richert, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — Flip on a radio in South Carolina this week, and you might hear this ad:
"Rick Perry signed a law to make taxpayers pay college tuition for illegal immigrants. Michele Bachmann opposes giving government benefits to illegal immigrants."
The ad is clearly in support of Bachmann, but her campaign didn't pay for it.
It's bankrolled by Keep Conservatives United (KCU), one of a growing number of what are known as super PACs, a new class of political fundraising organizations that stand to have a major impact on the 2012 election.
Super PACs such as KCU are allowed to raise as much money as they want and spend as much as they want for or against a candidate. But they can't coordinate with campaigns.
It's the second KCU ad aired in South Carolina. The first - a TV spot - targeted Perry's spending record as Texas governor, a message meant to resonate with the sizeable number of South Carolina Republicans who identify with tea party ideals. The group's latest radio ad will be aired on conservative talk radio broadcasts in Charleston and Columbia, according to the group's website.
The ads are good for Bachmann's campaign for two reasons, said Scott Huffmon, a political science professor at Winthrop University. First, they help her build name recognition in South Carolina, a state that's long been important to winning the GOP nomination.
And the ads help differentiate Bachmann from Perry, which will be crucial to Bachmann's success in South Carolina because the two candidates are similar, Huffmon added. Right now, Perry's doing well among evangelical voters and voters who identify with the tea party - precisely the support Bachmann needs to do well in the state.
"This cage match over tea party support definitely seems to be playing out where Bachmann and Perry overlap," he said.
The ads also prevent Bachmann from having to take a direct stab at Perry, said Michael Beckel, spokesman for OpenSecrets.org, a group that tracks political money. "If you're a candidate, you're not going to be able to control that message," he said. "On the other hand, the super PACs might be able to take a stronger hit than the candidate would feel comfortable with."
RISE OF SUPER PACS
KCU is among a new breed of political action committees that spawned after the Supreme Court issued the controversial Citizen's United ruling in 2010 that allows corporations to spend as much as they want in support of or against a candidate.
The upcoming 2012 election is expected to be unprecedentedly expensive because super PACs can raise unlimited sums of cash from corporations and other high-rolling donors. That means donors who give the maximum amount to a candidate can also write massive checks to these outside groups.
Super PACs can also spend unlimited sums of cash, but they must report donors to the Federal Election Commission. And unlike regular PACs, super PACs can't donate money directly to political candidates.
"They are a very loud megaphone with a lot of money that's much easier to raise," said Beckel.
Such fundraising groups can boost their cash holdings substantially by working in tandem with related non-profits.
As an example, Beckel points to the conservative American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS, a PAC and a non-profit respectively, that together aim to raise $240 million in the 2012 election cycle. Both can raise unlimited amounts of money, but Crossroads GPS does not have to disclose fundraising because it is a "social welfare" group that can advocate for specific policy issues. In turn, Crossroads GPS can donate its cash to American Crossroads.
Super PACs can't coordinate with campaigns, either. But there are no rules preventing former candidate staffers from creating or working for the fundraising operations.
For instance, Priorities USA Action is a Democratic super PAC supporting President Barack Obama. It's led by former White House officials Bill Burton and Sean Sweeney. And Make Us Great Again, a Perry PAC, was created by Perry's former chief of staff Mike Toomey.
Bachmann's in the same boat. Her former political consultant Ed Brookover is involved with Citizens for a Working America, another pro-Bachmann PAC. In the 2010 election cycle, the group spent more than $250,000 to oust former House Budget chairman John Spratt, a Democrat from South Carolina.
"Anyone is allowed to go out and run a super PAC, but when it comes down to it, there are very few people who have the strategic skills," said Beckel. "They are very tight knit group of people."
In that regard, Keep Conservatives United is an anomaly. The group is led by Bob Harris, who is well-known political operative in North Carolina, but he and his partner, Luther Snyder, have no obvious ties to Bachmann.
In an email, Harris said his connection to Bachmann was ideological.
She's the only "candidate with guts to challenge Washington establishment in both parties," he wrote. "She's honest and consistent."
So far, the group hasn't disclosed its dollars, so it's difficult to say how effective KCU will be in bolstering Bachmann's campaign.
But Harris's roots in the conservative party appear to be deep; his signature work was a series of ads for Sen. Jesse Helms's 1984 campaign, portraying his opponent as a flip-flopper, said Ferrel Guillory, who leads the Program on Public Life at the University of North Carolina a Chapel Hill. According to KCU's website, Harris has done research for Republican Sens. John Thune and Jim DeMint.
What's remarkable is that Harris's spent much of his career in a wheelchair and, more recently, from bed with muscular dystrophy, Guillory said.
"This bedridden guy who is immobile devotes his life to just reading," said Guillory. Now he's reading up on Bachmann's opponents, with an aim toward using what he finds against them, said Guillory.