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Dec 5, 2023, 6:02pm EST
politicsNorth America

Why big-money super PACs keep blowing it for their candidates

A New Hampshire resident signs Ron Desantis' campaign bus.
REUTERS/Sophie Park/File Photo
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The Scene

The Republican presidential primary isn’t over, but the super PACs with the biggest ambitions may have already lost it.

Never Back Down, the pro-Ron DeSantis super PAC that launched with an $82.5 million transfer from the Florida governor’s state re-election PAC, has lost key staff and apparently its candidate’s faith since November. DeSantis allies launched a new PAC, Fight Right, where “100% of contributions go direct to TV ads,” according to a memo from DeSantis campaign manager James Uthmeier.

The assessment: NBD’s messaging, on air in Iowa all year, hadn’t worked. That leaves the governor’s ground game still run by an organization that top DeSantis strategists don’t trust and that they can’t directly influence.

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“The first rule of super PAC strategy is the Clint Eastwood rule: Know your limitations,” said Mike Murphy, who was lead strategist for the pro-Jeb Bush Right to Rise super PAC eight years ago. “It looks like Never Back Down thought it had no limitations, so of course it got crosswise with the candidate.”

Since mid-November, the governor’s marquee super PAC has changed CEOs twice, installing a new one, Scott Wagner, who clashed with strategist Jeff Roe. (Neither Roe nor NBD have said whether he remains with the super PAC.)

South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, who folded up his campaign after last month’s middling debate performance, was wounded after a supportive super PAC raised expectations around fundraising. Millions of dollars from Oracle co-founder Larry Ellison, covered as a near-certainty in the press, never showed up; in mid-October, the super PAC announced $40 million in ad cancellations, sending a signal that donors were giving up on Scott.

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With less fanfare, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum ended his bid on Monday, after polling too low to make the Republican National Committee’s debate threshold — and after Best of America, a super PAC mostly funded by a few seven-figure donors, spent millions on early-state ads on his behalf.

The early buys for Burgum and Scott met some immediate goals: They bumped each candidate into the single digits, helping them make the debates. The Strong and Free America Fund, Nikki Haley’s preferred super PAC, did the same thing, going on air in August and helping the candidate stay on TV before her campaign spent on its own ads three months later.

“W​e made the decision to be more traditional, and it’s borne out,” said Mark Harris, the lead strategist for SFA Fund. “It’s hard to run a campaign without a candidate.”

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But the super PAC has taken some incoming, too. On Tuesday, The New York Times reported that LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman, a Democratic donor, gave $250,000 to SFA Fund.

“This makes sense,” snarked Vivek Ramaswamy, who calls his non-Trump rivals “super PAC puppets,” having made little use of his own preferred super PAC.

“It makes perfect sense that liberal Democrat billionaires would support Nikki Haley’s bid for the White House,” DeSantis press secretary Brian Griffin said in a statement, “because she is a liberal.”

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David’s view

In April, weeks before DeSantis entered the race, I interviewed voters at an Iowa cattle call and found that many assumed he was already running. All of them had opened their mailboxes to find glossy, 16-page booklets introducing the candidate, paid for by Never Back Down. One month later, as they drove into his actual launch event, DeSantis-curious voters zipped past Never Back Down lawn signs and parked behind a Never Back Down bus.

Super PACs, which were effectively created by a 2010 Supreme Court decision that allowed non-candidate PACs to accept donations of unlimited size, have tried to build parallel campaigns before. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz benefited from an array of super PACs in his 2016 presidential campaign, built to allow large donors to pursue different, overlapping strategies. Bobby Jindal’s shorter-lived campaign that year pioneered a tactic that Never Back Down perfected — events, put on by the PACs, that invited the candidate as a “special guest.” (Tell It Like It is, a pro-Chris Christie PAC, is doing the same with a New Hampshire town hall this week.)

This was allowed because the FEC, divided equally between Democrats and Republicans, simply doesn’t enforce most campaign finance standards. Republicans on the committee see most restrictions as First Amendment violations. It was a safe bet that there’d be no problem moving money from a state PAC to a federal PAC, and none with a candidate — on paper, prevented from coordinating with a super PAC — riding its bus and talking with its strategists.

It wasn’t surprising that some candidates jumped at the chance to effectively outsource their campaign to a handful of big donors, once that became a clear possibility, rather than relying on fickle small donors and exhausting grip-and-grins with bundlers and their friends. In doing so, though, they surrender crucial control and lose the flexibility to course-correct that they have on their actual campaign.

This became especially clear when Never Back Down catastrophically undermined DeSantis’ first debate after — because of coordination restrictions — they posted a highly specific game plan that was publicly accessible online. It was discovered by The New York Times right before the debate, forcing the candidate into a box: Using its advice would look canned; failing to use it when there was an opening could feed stories about internal dissension over strategy.

Taking over so many of the operations and goals of a campaign, including its ground game, has so far not helped Never Back Down win votes for DeSantis. One reason is subjective, though it’s an opinion shared by plenty of operatives: Its ads haven’t been very good.

The early ads attempted to introduce DeSantis and undermine Trump on assorted individual conservative issues with little in the way of a big unifying theme. To the extent they’ve gotten attention, it’s often been for provocative minor gimmicks. In May, Never Back Down’s video about the DeSantis campaign launch added fake fighter jets to footage of the Florida governor waving at a 2022 campaign rally. In July, another ad used AI to simulate Donald Trump’s voice for a dramatic, tinny reading of the criticism he’d posted of Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds on Truth Social.

Another problem, shared by every super PAC, is that a system that puts no limits on what donors can give bestows great power on those donors — like the power to chat with reporters and set narratives — outside of any campaign’s sphere of influence. Ellison’s shell game created a problem for Scott by suggesting that a massive pile of money would be available to him. When it never showed up, Scott suffered from the missing air cover, then suffered again from questions about donors losing confidence in him.

DeSantis had a similar challenge, hitting from different directions. Potential PAC investors who dealt with the press — Thomas Peterffy, Dan Eberhart, Ken Griffin — became a Greek chorus of doom. “He’s spending too much and needs to adjust,” Eberhart told Puck in July, a week after a Financial Times story on how Griffin and other mega-donors were getting nervous about the social-conservative wins DeSantis had notched in Florida on abortion and his clashes with Disney over education and LGBTQ issues. Peterffy spent the year bending campaign reporters’ ears about how Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin could rush in and save the party.

The result of all this: Swirling, complicated, often annoying storylines that the candidates can do nothing to control. “In the super PAC world, you know there are pre-written stories that a slight whisker-tickle will trigger,” said Murphy. “One is unhappy mega-donors. Two is infighting. Three is vital TV time getting canceled.”

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The View From Democrats

They’re loving it. On Friday, kicking back at the Democratic Governors Association’s post-election meeting, California Gov. Gavin Newsom rejoiced in the DeSantis campaign’s struggles — including the Never Back Down drama that stepped on his own debate with the Florida governor, and a DeSantis rally celebrating visits to all 99 counties in Iowa.

“I can’t even conceive of the train wreck that is the DeSantis campaign,” Newsom told reporters in Phoenix. “One of the worst weeks, on top of one of the worst months, on top of the worst campaign kickoff in modern American history.”

Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear, reminiscing on his own victory last month, said that the DGA had helped him overcome a wave of Republican spending — but that the spending was atomized among multiple groups with ineffective messages.

“It wasn’t just the [Republican Governors Association],” he said. “It was Rand Paul’s super PAC, it was the Club for Growth, it was Mitch McConnell, funneling money to a super PAC.”

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Notable

  • In the Washington Post, Dan Balz asks what power the super-rich really have in this primary, or if they’re “nervous billionaires conspiring to flex their muscles.”
  • In Bloomberg, Nancy Cook explains where the Never Back Down drama fits into an overall DeSantis malaise: “The timing may not have been right for DeSantis to run.”
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