Ryan Zinke, a Republican running for Congress in Montana, is using a novel scheme to bankroll his congressional campaign—one that originated with Stephen Colbert. In January 2012, Colbert summoned Daily Show host Jon Stewart and Trevor Potter, a campaign finance expert, to the Colbert Report studio for a surprise announcement: Colbert was handing control of his super-PAC—a political action committee that can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money on political races—to Stewart. The two comedians signed a two-page document, then held hands and locked eyes while Potter bellowed the words, “Colbert super-PAC transfer, activate!” Colbert then announced that he was forming an exploratory committee to weigh a run for “President of the United States of South Carolina.” Stewart, meanwhile, renamed Colbert’s super-PAC the Definitely Not Coordinating with Stephen Colbert Super PAC, and promised Colbert he would run ads to support Colbert’s presidential bid. The point of Colbert and Stewart’s comedy bit was to demonstrate that the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision had rendered campaign finance law remarkably flimsy—so weak that it was legal for a person to start a super-PAC, raise unlimited heaps of cash from big-money donors for that super-PAC, quit the super-PAC, and then run for federal office supported by that super-PAC. Here was an easy way to escape the $2,500 limit on what individuals may give to federal candidates.
Now Ryan Zinke—a 52-year-old ex-Navy SEAL and former state senator who is running to be Montana’s only congressman—is putting Colbert’s theory to the test. In 2012, Zinke founded Special Operations for America (SOFA) as a super-PAC backing Mitt Romney’s candidacy for president. The group, which Zinke founded out of anger that Obama was “taking credit” for the mission that killed Osama bin Laden, attracted national attention and raised more than $100,000 during the 2012 campaign. After Romney lost, the super-PAC kept raising money. Then, on September 30, Zinke quit the group he founded, handing control to former Navy SEAL Gary Stubblefield—his Jon Stewart. During that time, SOFA’s Facebook page and Twitter feed hummed with “draft Zinke” web ads for the Ryan Zinke Exploratory Committee. Three weeks later, on October 21, Zinke declared his candidacy—and SOFA announced that it would lend its fundraising muscle and substantial war chest to help its little-known former chairman get elected. “Show your support for Ryan Zinke by donating now!” a page on SOFA’s website proclaims.
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“No one has really pushed the boundaries of super-PACs in this direction, to my knowledge,” says Paul S. Ryan, senior counsel for the Campaign Legal Center. (Rick Hasen, an election law expert at the University of California-Irvine, jokes in an email that the only precedent he can think of is Colbert’s “campaign.”) That doesn’t mean that what SOFA and Zinke are doing is illegal. The Federal Election Commission prohibits super-PACs from coordinating with candidates or their campaigns, but it defines “coordination” as specific conversations about advertising strategy. Founding a super-PAC, quitting the super-PAC, and running for Congress with the support of that super-PAC is not considered coordination.