Line between Super PACs and candidates is getting hazy

By Nicholas Confessore
New York Times / August 28, 2011

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NEW YORK - One night last month, Mitt Romney strode into a dining room above Central Park that was packed with dozens of his wealthiest supporters, gathered there by a group of former campaign aides, to talk about his bid for the White House.

But the event was not a fund-raiser for Romney’s campaign. It was for Restore Our Future, a political action committee founded by his allies. And only when Romney left the room did one of the group’s officials stand up to brief the donors on their plans: to raise and spend millions of dollars in unrestricted campaign donations - something presidential candidates are forbidden to do themselves - to help elect Romney president.

Romney’s appearance underscored the increasingly blurry line between presidential candidates and the so-called Super PACs that have proliferated since a 2010 Supreme Court ruling allowed independent groups to raise unlimited amounts to promote candidates.

Most of this year’s presidential candidates are now backed by one or more dedicated Super PACs. Unlike the broad-based independent groups backing multiple candidates that flooded last year’s congressional elections with negative advertising - playing a role similar to that of traditional party committees - the new groups are each dedicated to the election of a single candidate.

The groups are typically founded by the candidates’ former aides, financed by the candidates’ top donors, and implicitly blessed by the candidates themselves. And they are quickly beginning to rival the candidates’ own money operations in size and scope, setting off a fund-raising arms race that is changing the way presidential campaigns are financed and executed.

Restore Our Future is run by three veterans of Romney’s 2008 campaign team. They were recently joined by a fund-raiser who left Romney’s 2012 team, according to a report by the nonpartisan Center for Public Integrity. Restore Our Future raised more than $12 million during the first half of the year - more than any actual Republican candidate except Romney himself.

A pair of aides to President Obama started Priorities USA, the leading Democratic Super PAC, just two months after they left their jobs at the White House in February. And two weeks ago, a onetime consultant to Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota took over Citizens for a Working America, a previously existing Super PAC, with plans to focus its mission solely on electing Bachmann president.

Make Us Great Again, a Super PAC founded late last month, is backed by Mike Toomey, a prominent lobbyist in Austin, Texas, who is a former chief of staff to Governor Rick Perry. Toomey also owns a private New Hampshire island with Dave Carney, the top strategist for Perry’s nascent presidential campaign.

In an e-mail to potential donors this month, Toomey and his cofounders described the group as “an independent effort focused on helping advance Governor Perry’s agenda and message, as well as promoting the issues of critical importance to America and contrasting Governor Perry’s record with Obama’s abysmal performance as president.’’

Federal Election Commission guidelines adopted in the wake of the Supreme Court decision prohibit independent groups from coordinating expenditures with their favored presidential candidates and limit how much candidates can directly help raise for the groups. During Romney’s brief appearance before current and prospective donors to Restore Our Future, he made no appeal for money, participants said.

Some advocates for tighter campaign regulation say existing rules on independent groups did not anticipate the emergence of Super PACs so closely tied to a single candidate, leaving so much room to maneuver that the independent groups are able to act as surrogates for the candidates. top stories on Twitter

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