super PACs

by Brooke Williams | inewsource

San Diegans may soon witness the war of the super PACs up close, as some of these mega spenders zero in on contests right here at home.

A couple of super committees are locally based, including one with cosmic interests.

Super PACs, nonprofits that can raise and spend unlimited funds from corporations, unions and individuals to support and oppose politicians and causes, are watching the 52nd Congressional District, a traditionally Republican safehouse in North County until its boundaries were redrawn last year. Now incumbent Brian Bilbray faces two challengers in the primary, and the Democrats are preparing to make it a real contest.

Alixandria Lapp, executive director of the House Majority PAC, a super PAC dedicated to helping Democrats win back the House, said the 52nd District is in their sights. It has raised about $3 million so far, according to records filed with the Federal Elections Commission. Its biggest donors are unions, some of which have written six figure checks.

“I feel relatively confident that we will be investing resources in this race and ensuring the voters in San Diego understand the choice they have this fall,” she said. “It’s only logical that groups like ours would see this as a strong pickup opportunity.”

Also keeping a close eye on the 52nd is American Crossroads, a conservative super PAC that has raised about $18 million so far, according to federal elections data. Its largest donors–to the tune of $2 and $5 million–are wealthy individuals.

Nate Hodson, spokesman for American Crossroads, was wary of discussing specific strategies but said they are monitoring the 52nd District.

“Races in San Diego are becoming competitive, certainly the opportunity will be great there for a number of groups,” he said.

Super PACs — Political Action Committees — mushroomed after the federal courts blew the cap off the amount these organizations can raise and spend. They can’t be directly tied to candidates, but they can spend as much as they want to support or oppose them. And they already have in the first primary states, especially on television advertisements.

Richard Briffault, a campaign finance expert and professor of law at Columbia University, said super PACs are going to home in on close races where “they think their money could make a difference.”

“Sometimes it’s a good thing; people might become more attentive—something real is happening, something exciting,” he said.

Super PACs are uncharted territory. Anyone can form one by sending a letter to the FEC. And there is no law saying what they must do with the money they raise.

“Other than being barred from giving their money directly to candidates or political parties, super PACs can do what they want with their money,” said Viveca Novak, spokeswoman for the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonprofit organization that monitors and analyzes campaign data.

Some can be left with a lot of cash on their hands. One in La Jolla, for instance, was dedicated to electing Rick Perry. It raised about $430,000 and spent about $409,000 through the end of 2011, according to federal records. Its biggest donor is Texas billionaire investor Harold Simmons.

Once Perry was out of the race, the group changed its name to the Restoring Prosperity Fund and created a one-page website that says it “continues to advocate for Conservative Causes and take an active roll in House and Senate races in the coming election cycle.” Longtime San Diego-based Republican political consultant Bob Schuman is the group’s national campaign director, and the PAC shares an address on Faye Avenue in La Jolla with his firm.

As of Feb. 13, 318 super PACs had reported raising a total of $98.6 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Some appear to be among the growing number of spoof groups like comedian Stephen Colbert’s Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow.

There is one registered to an apartment in La Jolla called A Completely Legitimate Super PAC, though it’s not legitimately a super PAC because it didn’t register to accept unlimited contributions.

Another super PAC in San Diego is called Reaching Stars – Securing Our Future. It is dedicated to the establishment and flourishing of sustainable life on other planets.

Erik Hanley, who lives in Texas but registered the PAC at his parents’ address in Scripps Ranch, said he formed the super PAC in response to steep cuts in NASA funding and space exploration. He wants to start a dialogue about how to ensure life will exist elsewhere when the this planet can no longer support it.

“Part of the reason I started the PAC is that I know nothing happens without political support,” he said.

Hanley said he hopes that like-minded individuals and companies will donate money to further this mission. So far, his super PAC hasn’t reported spending or receiving money.

“People are thinking about the economy, people are thinking about jobs, people aren’t thinking about far off places,” he said. “I don’t think people are going to agree with my view point today or tomorrow, but I think time is on my side.”

Some wealthy individuals in San Diego have donated to more election minded super PACs.

A few months before he bought The San Diego Union-Tribune, Doug Manchester gave $25,000 to Restore Our Future, which is has raised about $30 million and is dedicated to electing Mitt Romney. San Diego real estate investors Lawrence and Suzanne Hess have donated $120,000 to Progressive Kick, a Super PAC based in Oakland. The group has raised about $130,000 and hasn’t reported any expenditures.

Hess said he and his wife donated the money for races in Iowa and Wisconsin. So far, he said, they haven’t contributed with a local race in mind.

Experts in campaign finance say super PAC spending isn’t just amplifying in San Diego but all around California where newly redrawn districts are putting formerly safe congressional seats in jeopardy.

Richard Hasen, an expert in election law and campaign finance and law professor at the University of California, Irvine, said he expects super PAC spending to “explode” if control of the House comes into play. In fact, the organizations could spend more than the candidates themselves.

Lapp said the House Majority PAC hasn’t done any fundraising in California yet, but she expects that to happen soon, especially since donors can earmark their money for specific races.

“Something that is really exciting to California Democrats is that for the first time in a very long time there are a lot of really competitive Democratic elections in California,” she said. “Previously, that money went to congressional races in Michigan or Missouri.”

Brooke Williams is an investigative reporter based in Washington, D.C.

This story was corrected to include expenditures by Americans for Rick Perry.

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