The next frontier for super PACs: playing in Senate and House party leadership elections. The formula is simple. Raise $10 million from the jet set or grass-roots followers, spend it on 40 to 50 House districts or 15 Senate races and then call in favors when it’s time to count votes for speaker, floor leader or whip. The model has been built. The money’s out there. And there’s no shortage of ambition in Congress. The question is: Can anyone put it all together?
“Throughout the country, there are a lot of mini-Sheldon Adelsons who have personal wealth and who may be attracted to a particular candidate, and I think that one way to help that candidate is to support a super PAC,” Republican election lawyer Jan Baran said, referring to the Las Vegas casino magnate who has spent millions of dollars propping up Newt Gingrich’s super PAC.
John Murray, who left his job as a senior aide to House Majority Leader Eric Cantor to start a Cantor-backed super PAC, said there are “threshold” issues that make it a challenge but not an impossibility for a single member of Congress to execute such a strategy. “If there are members who have the capacity to build out that kind of an infrastructure and have people in their orbit that are capable of going out there and doing it, it’s certainly possible,” he said. “By and large, right now, that seems like a fairly significant hurdle for most members.”
But a handful of superstars in both parties say they are leaving money on the table — that it’s out there waiting for them — because there are hard limits on how much money donors can give to their campaign committees and leadership political action committees. The answer: Form a super PAC. Under current rules, the donor can give just $4,800 to a candidate for federal office in a two-year cycle and $10,000 to his or her political action committee. In a handful of cases, members have created “victory committees,” also known as “joint fundraising committees,” to collect one check of tens of thousands of dollars that is then split into pieces for the party committee, their own reelection campaign, their leadership PAC and a state-level committee. House Speaker John Boehner, for example, has donors writing single checks for more than $50,000.