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Tuesday, February 8, 2011

State PACs

As we note in our chapter on elections and campaigns (p. 352), state and federal elections operate according to different rules, especially when it comes to campaign finance. At National Journal, Eliza Newlin Carney reports on state political action committees, which do not have to report their finances to the Federal Election Commission.

At a time when campaign finance rules look increasingly quaint and obsolete, it should come as no surprise that the latest crop of presidential hopefuls is exploiting secretive, unregulated state PACs to test the waters for 2012.

Still, the return of soft money—the unlimited donations from otherwise-banned corporate and union donors—signals a new milestone in the march toward rules-free elections. Critics say such state PACs, which have pulled in close to $3 million collectively for at least five GOP White House contenders, are an end-run around federal contribution limits and reporting rules.


Little-regulated state PACs help prospective candidates pay for office supplies, staff, and travel; shower donations on local officials who’ll help choose convention delegates; and test their fundraising heft in a campaign in which President Obama could spend $1 billion.

“The state PACs have become the most invisible part of what’s known as the invisible primary,” said Anthony Corrado, professor of government at Colby College. “It really is a pre-campaign campaign.”

Presidential leadership PACs with state affiliates are not new, but state campaign committees fell out of favor when Congress banned soft money in 2002. The Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act still bars federal officeholders from raising soft money through non-federal vehicles such as state PACs. But most of this year’s GOP presidential contenders do not hold federal office, which partly explains renewed interest in state PACs. It also points up an unintended consequence of the 2002 ban.

“It places prospective federal contenders at a relative disadvantage to those who don’t hold federal office,” noted Corrado. “And it has increased the premium on being out of office in launching a presidential bid.”