Three-quarters of the money spent on behalf of Chris McDaniel’s failed bid for the Republican nomination for Senate in Mississippi came from outside political action committees (PACs). That money, from groups like the Club for Growth and FreedomWorks, accounted for 36 percent of the funds spent by both sides combined. We’re obviously a few miles down the road from the days when candidates for elected office stood on wooden platforms. But we are perhaps further than you might think. In fact, there is nothing in federal law that would prevent a super PAC or group of PACs from picking out a candidate and taking care of his or her entire campaign. And we’re starting to get a glimpse of what such a campaign might look like. In order to win an election, you, first, need a candidate. You need to let people know about your candidate, so you need TV ads and radio ads and ads on Facebook. You need direct mail, and you need people to knock on doors and talk to voters. But, really, that’s it. With the right combination of those things, you can win pretty much any political race in the country.
Until recently, candidates’ campaigns controlled that activity, in the way that employees work for a CEO. Senior-level staff and consultants facilitated buying media and mail and knocking on doors. Over the past few election cycles, though, PACs have started to figure out the extent to which they can help augment this work by themselves. Unions have run out-of-the-box field programs for a long time; now they’re joined by money-soaked PACs that can blanket districts with mail as they hose them down with TV spots.
So if you’re a candidate, what is the absolute minimum that you need in order to run for office, the thing that only you can provide? The answer is this: The candidate. And in a world where that candidate is restricted in fundraising and spending but those PACs aren’t, why not let the PACs handle the TV ads and radio and the online marketing and the field and all of that? For years, candidates have been happy to have outside groups run negative ads against opponents. Why not let them do more? The candidate is just himself, and the PACs do everything else.