Perry Campaign Tests Limits of Super PAC Power
A good question in this colorful campaign cycle is whether a well-heeled super PAC will enable any of the 17 Republican presidential candidates to linger past his or her campaign’s expiration date.
Rick Perry is going to be the first to find out.
The former Texas governor’s campaign confirmed this week it’s running so low on cash it’s no longer able to pay its staff. Those working for the candidate are doing so on a volunteer basis. But the financial straits Perry suddenly faces in his second-time-around presidential bid are eased by his well-financed political action committee, the Opportunity and Freedom PAC, which will now take over many of the campaign’s operations.
Federal Election Commission rules prohibit outside groups from coordinating with the campaigns they support, but the laws are murky and somewhat toothless, and various campaigns are testing the limits.
With the reward high and the risk relatively low, Perry’s super PAC will be testing the limits. And his won’t be the last. Unlike traditional campaigns, super PACs can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money in support of a candidate or cause. Many of the campaigns have outsourced operations and allocated former staff to their PACs, and Scott Walker and Jeb Bush waited as their respective groups campaigned and raised money before officially entering the race later in the game. John Kasich is rising in New Hampshire, thanks, in large part, to $3 million in ads from his PAC. And a group supporting Carly Fiorina, strategically called "CARLY for America," is also focusing on ground-game efforts.
The PAC can advertise on behalf of the candidate, host events at which the candidate appears (so long as he or she doesn’t ask for money), collect and analyze voter data, conduct polls, and organize and mobilize activists and voters—critical work, especially in caucus states like Iowa.
So, what can’t PACs do? “That’s a great question,” says Austin Barbour, a Mississippi Republican strategist directing Perry’s super PAC.
“Essentially, if it doesn’t involve moving the candidate around and scheduling the candidate’s appearances, we have the freedom to do a lot of things.”
Perry’s PAC has raised $17 million this cycle, compared to the campaign’s $1 million. The campaign has only $880,000 in cash. On Tuesday, after reports of the campaign’s cash woes, a donor cut a $100,000 check to the PAC. Barbour said the donor, a Texas rancher, has been a Perry supporter for a while and wanted to help in a time of need. The PAC was his vehicle of choice.
Barbour says Perry’s camp saw the writing on the wall when the campaign reported its quarterly fundraising numbers, and knew the PAC would have to step up its game. The PAC has enough money and resources, he says, to carry Perry at least through February, when Iowa hosts the caucus, and hopes and expects the former governor to place in the top three. The PAC already has been airing ads in Iowa and is planning to release more soon.
“I think there’s a lot of money sitting on the fence in Texas, and a lot of people want to see how he does in Iowa,” Barbour says. “If we go to Iowa and finish in top three, a lot of people will come off the fence, and I think he’s really dangerous at that point.”
The role of super PACs in politics is new, but the waters have been charted. Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich lasted longer than they might have with the help of wealthy donors funding their respective outside groups. This time around, the groups are more organized and critical to keeping a candidacy alive.
When Perry’s campaign reported its fundraising total for the quarter, the PAC knew it would have to play a more vital role. “We have been examining and planning to step up the super PAC’s activities to move beyond paid advertising into more of a grassroots-style support effort in the early states,” says Ray Sullivan, co-chair of the PAC. Sullivan says the group has the ability to hire more on-the-ground staff and can focus its attention on mobilizing voters, making door-to-door contacts, and other grassroots activities the campaign usually handles.
This level of involvement from PACs, beyond the advertising, is almost unprecedented.
“This appears to be a new phenomenon we’re going to see in presidential politics,” says Sam Clovis, who is chairing Perry’s campaign in Iowa. “We have these super PACs now that have pockets of money, and that really can come in behind a campaign that doesn’t have all the bells and whistles and do a lot of the heavy lifting—whipping votes for the caucus, getting caucus speakers, and so on. I don’t think we’ve ever seen anything quite like this.”
Because of this, “I think we’re going to see a lot of candidates—as long as they can pay their motel bills—stick this out until February,” Clovis says, noting that the ability of the PAC to map out events and mobilize caucus voters is key.
And without clear consequences, campaigns will continue to push the limits of PAC involvement, says Bob Biersack, a fellow at the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks money in politics. “It’s unsettled, in terms of the law, what the FEC would think of as absolutely coordinating, and what might be controversial for them,” Biersack says.
The increasing role of super PACs brings to mind campaigns that could have been successful, had well-financed outside help been available. Perry’s campaign trouble is reminiscent of John McCain’s 2008 campaign, which nearly disintegrated after having spent too much money. The campaign let go of much of the staff and restructured operations to focus on the grassroots, specifically in New Hampshire, where McCain ultimately won before later clinching the GOP nomination. That was before the new campaign finance ruling that paved the way for PACs. Perry’s supporters point to McCain and say their candidate’s path is even more achievable.
But McCain’s experience isn’t exactly transferable. While PACs help, there are still 16 other candidates vying for money and attention.
“The question is whether the PAC can delay the inevitable long enough to have some kind of more traditional momentum build,” for the actual campaign, says Biersack.
This is not to say, however, that the campaign itself has given up. Perry Campaign Manager Jeff Miller says only one staffer has left since the pay shutdown.
“Every other person is sticking around because they know what I know: that there is an actual path forward because no one can match him in terms of record or retail politics skills,” says Miller, noting the campaign has enough money to allow Perry to continue traveling to early states and getting his message out.
Perry will go to South Carolina on Thursday, followed by a few days in Iowa, and back to South Carolina at the end of the month. Perry has spent more time in Iowa than any other candidate besides Santorum. Both the campaign and the PAC point to Perry’s high ratings in national and early state polls as a sign of opportunity.
“As more and more people spend time with Perry, they're going to be impressed and stop paying attention to the celebrity of this race,” says Miller.
That celebrity has been a cause of tension for several low-polling candidates. Donald Trump has taken up most of the political oxygen since he launched his campaign nearly two months ago, and most of his GOP rivals have tried in different ways to take him on or cut into his support.
Perry was among the first out of the gate to criticize Trump and saw it as a way to propel his own campaign. In a speech in Washington last month, Perry called Trump “a cancer” on conservatives, for example. But the strategy has had virtually no effect. Perry remains low in national and early-state polls (he’s at 2.2 percent in the RCP average in Iowa, for example) and failed to make it to the prime-time debate stage last week. While Perry had a fine performance in the early Thursday debate—the pressure was on him after his notorious “oops” moment in his 2012 run—Carly Fiorina outshined everyone and has gained momentum in the polls.
Trump, meanwhile, continues to lead the pack despite new controversy, though a fresh Suffolk poll of Iowa Republicans showed a small dent in his support.
Still, Perry’s campaign knows it has to contend with Trump for the time being, and possibly, for a while.
“The support for Trump is very stubborn. It’s resilient, and it will be difficult to erode that,” says Clovis. “Governor Perry was offended by the comments, and he expressed himself extremely well, and I don't think he regrets it at all. But the system right now is not supportive of that. It appears that anybody that criticizes Trump gets hammered.”
Clovis says that while he believes Perry is well organized in Iowa and will bring strong competition, Trump’s campaign could surprise people there. “I can’t swing a dead cat [in Iowa] and not hit a Trump guy,” he says.