In much of the country, super PACs have been a force for years. But it took a while for these independent political action committees, free to raise unlimited sums from corporations and unions, to land in Massachusetts politics.
Scott Brown and Elizabeth Warren kept them at bay, for the most part, with a “People’s Pledge” in their 2012 US Senate race. And there have been several copycat pledges since.
But super PACs had an impact on the Boston mayor’s race last year. And now, for the first time, they’re playing a starring role in a state-level contest: the Massachusetts governor’s race.
A super PAC backing Treasurer Steve Grossman for governor has paid for polling by a top adviser to President Obama. Another has put up a flashy website ripping into Republican front-runner Charlie Baker. And as of last weekend, the outside groups had run more television advertisements than the candidates themselves, according to an analysis by ad tracker Kantar Media/CMAG.
The age of the super PAC, it seems, has finally arrived. And it promises to fundamentally change Massachusetts politics. Here, then, is everything you need to know about the new order.
Even the casual observer knows that outside spending has exploded in presidential and congressional races in recent years. It topped $1 billion in 2012, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
But independent money, it turns out, is becoming an ever larger presence in state and local races, too. Super PACs have waded into a fight over funding for the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium in Ohio, a Democratic primary for constable in Travis County, Texas, and races for governor and attorney general all over the country.
Assigning a number to the trend is tricky; there is no central repository for the data and the states’ disclosure laws vary widely. But the National Institute on Money in State Politics estimates that outside money in the 21 states it tracks totaled $193 million in 2012 — about 19 percent of the total spending in those campaigns.
Here in Massachusetts, outside groups had reported spending almost $2 million on the gubernatorial race through mid-August, up from about $100,000 at the same point in the 2010 campaign. And millions in television advertising reserved for later this fall haven’t even showed up in the state records yet.
So who’s spending all that cash?
In the Massachusetts governor’s race there’s a mix of traditional players — the Republican Governors Association, the Democratic Governors Association, several unions — and some new ones: among them, Grossman’s mother.
In their June paper “The New Soft Money,” Daniel P. Tokaji and Renata E.B. Strause of the Moritz College of Law at Ohio State University identify what they see as four kinds of super PACs.
1) The “Shadow Party” supports either Democratic or Republican candidates, without regard to geography or any particular issue.
2) The “Old Hands” super PAC is run by a long-established group with defined interests; think the US Chamber of Commerce or the AFL-CIO.
3) “Buddy PACs” exist to support a specific candidate. (Sometimes, it seems, your mom is your best buddy.)
4) The “New Kids on the Block” are outside spenders who focus on a specific region or issue.
All four models have turned up in the Bay State, sometimes several kinds in a single race.
Last year, in the special election to replace John Kerry in the US Senate, one rich guy from California — a hedge fund manager and environmentalist “New Kid on the Block” — added Democrat Edward J. Markey to the roster of climate-change-attuned politicians he’s backed, while another rich guy from California — a Sonoma County vintner — set up a “Buddy PAC” supporting Republican Gabriel E. Gomez.
Together, they dropped about $2.4 million on the race.
Super PACs are barred from coordinating directly with the candidates they support. But they can still take cues.
Grossman spent weeks publicly criticizing Democratic gubernatorial front-runner Martha Coakley for opposing a plan to limit gun purchases to one per month. And the super PAC supporting him dutifully turned the critique into a television spot.
Increasingly, candidates are offering up not just the message for spots, but the raw material.
Baker, the Republican gubernatorial front-runner, is among a growing number of politicians shooting “b-roll” — footage of the candidate shaking hands and talking to voters — and putting it in the public domain for a super PAC, or anyone else, to use.
Look for more signaling, subtle and overt, in the closing months of the gubernatorial race.
The uncertainty principle
Even if they can telegraph messages to outside spenders, campaign operatives say they feel like they’re losing control.
One bad ad by a friendly super PAC could derail the whole campaign, they fret. And what if some billionaire suddenly spends big backing the opposition? “You’re fighting a conventional war, but you don’t know if your opponent has a nuclear weapon,” said a fund-raiser for one of the gubernatorial candidates.
When they’re in a high-minded mood, operatives argue democracy itself is in danger: Plutocrats are controlling the debate, they say, while candidates and parties are becoming increasingly irrelevant.
Their proposed solution to the problem, more often than not: raise the cap on contributions to candidates and parties so they can get back in the game.
Money, of course, can corrupt.
And on the federal level, members of Congress say they’re already looking over their shoulders as they legislate — worried that some well-heeled super PAC will swoop in to punish them for voting the wrong way on a bill.
But in Massachusetts, it’s state legislators who make the laws. And for the moment, they say, they’re not particularly concerned about a big national player picking off a legislator in Methuen or Marlborough.
But Senator Jamie Eldridge, an Acton Democrat active in campaign finance reform, notes that it doesn’t take much to tip a low-cost, state legislative race. And local interests, he warns, may soon start forming super PACs of their own.
Money well spent?
But are super PACs as effective as they might be?
The outside groups spend most of their money on TV ads. And those ads have obvious appeal; they’re still the easiest way to reach a broad swath of the electorate and they can move public opinion.
But academics and political operatives have begun to question their efficacy. Research suggests the impact of TV ads decays quickly; without a sustained buy, they’re of little value. And dueling spots, on both sides of a debate, can cancel each other out.
Advertising is also expensive — especially for super PACs, which do not get the discounted rates afforded to candidates.
Among the alternatives: the sort of grassroots, neighbor-to-neighbor contact increasingly seen as the hallmark of a quality campaign. But operatives and observers say there are barriers to Super PACs mounting field operations.
Sasha Issenberg, author of “The Victory Lab,” a look at data-driven campaigning, says a faceless, Washington-based organization has a harder time attracting volunteers than a candidate with a long history in the community. And super PACs, he adds, can better feed the egos of their donors with TV ads.
Massachusetts Republican operative Rob Gray says on-air communications are advantageous for another reason: TV spots are easily pulled and purchased, giving national players the flexibility to make last-minute spending decisions based on how candidates in different markets are faring.
Bottom line for the average Massachusetts voter: The age of the super PAC will probably mean, above all else, more attack ads streaming into your living room. Enjoy!