When Republican Representative Cory Gardner of Colorado announced in March that he would run for the U.S. Senate, he knew he could count on backing from national Republican groups, including so-called super PACs. But he wasn’t allowed to talk to them directly. Federal election law prohibits campaigns from having contact with the super PACs and advocacy organizations that have come to dominate political spending since the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision. Those rules were intended to put a wall between candidates, whose fundraising is constrained by federal limits, and special interest groups allowed to spend unlimited amounts of money promoting candidates and issues. In practice, campaigns have found ways to talk to super PACs while staying on the right side of the law. Gardner’s race illustrates how the system works. Within weeks of his declaring his Senate run, Americans for Prosperity, backed by billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, told the Washington Post it would spend $970,000 on three weeks of television, radio, and online ads attacking incumbent Democratic Senator Mark Udall. That news was a signal that Gardner, who was unopposed in the primary, could hang back and focus on raising money—even as Democratic groups began running their own ads attacking him.
Then, the day after the Americans for Prosperity ads ended, another Koch-backed group, Freedom Partners, stepped in with three more weeks of commercials. In the first week of May, the political spending arm of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce announced it would put up another $1.1 million for a third wave of pro-Gardner ads, including some in Spanish.
On May 19 the Associated Press reported that American Crossroads, the super PAC co-founded by Karl Rove, and its issue advocacy arm, Crossroads GPS, planned to spend $2.3 million in Colorado. That flagged the ad buy to Gardner and outside groups aligned with his campaign, along with everyone else. Two days later, as required by law, filings showed up on the Federal Communications Commission website listing the times and stations where those ads would run, making it clear that there was a period leading up to the June 24 primary when there would be no outside ads. During that window, the Gardner campaign—which declined to comment for this story—ran its own ads.