Annals of the super PAC era

Welcome to the age of rich 21-year-old college students dropping big money on random House races – and winning

Published May 23, 2012 3:40PM (EDT)

Thomas Massie
Thomas Massie

Last night provided the second reminder in a week that the real power of super PACs probably isn’t at the presidential level but rather in lower-profile Senate and House races.

Tom Massie, who enjoys strong support from the Ron/Rand Paul crowd, rolled to a 15-point victory in the race for the Republican congressional nomination in Kentucky’s 4th District. The result speaks to a few factors, including divided opposition (one of Massie’s opponents enjoyed establishment support, and the other catered to religious conservatives), the particular strength of the Paul movement in Kentucky, and some help from a pair of familiar outside groups, FreedomWorks and the Club for Growth. But then then there’s this:

He also got more than $500,000 worth of backing from a super PAC called Liberty for All, which was funded almost entirely by a 21-year-old Texas college student with an inheritance. The group ran ads supporting Massie and criticizing Webb-Edgington and Moore.

Marc Wilson, a supporter of Webb-Edgington, criticized the group after the ballots were counted.

“It’s a shame that a Texas libertarian super PAC could come in and invade the Republican Party to buy a congressional seat,” he said.

The rich college student is John Ramsey, a senior economics major at Stephen F. Austin University who also volunteered for Ron Paul’s presidential campaign in Iowa. Mother Jones’s Tim Murphy profiled Ramsey, who inherited a share of his grandfather’s real estate/industrial fortune in 2010, last week and found that, in addition to airing ads and sending out mailers, Ramsey's super PAC had built an 11-person ground operation in Kentucky.  “I would call us more like a party, frankly,” Preston Bates, who cofounded Liberty for All with Ramsey, told Murphy.

Really, that line says it all. Traditionally, candidates in congressional primaries have needed either the blessing of party leaders or their own financial resources to compete and win in primaries. The same has generally gone for Senate primaries. But with super PACs, random plutocrats such as Ramsey can identify candidates across the country who champion their pet causes and deliver them to parity (at least) with their opponents. In this case, Ramsey’s agenda is the Paul version of liberty, which includes views on civil liberties that run counter to the standard GOP dogma. But it could be anything. Last week, the Ending Spending super PAC, which is bankrolled by Ameritrade founder Joe Ricketts, played a crucial role in Deb Fischer’s out-of-nowhere victory in Nebraska’s GOP Senate primary.

In presidential politics, spending a few hundred thousand – or even a few million – dollars on behalf of a candidate won’t get you very far, especially in the general election phase. But in House and Senate primaries, those same sums can be decisive. It raises the question of how many millionaires and billionaires with political agendas will take note of the Massie and Fischer examples and say to themselves: Gee, wouldn’t it be neat to have my own member of Congress?

By Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki is an MSNBC host and political correspondent. Previously, he hosted “Up with Steve Kornacki” on Saturday and Sunday 8-10 a.m. ET and was a co-host on MSNBC’s ensemble show “The Cycle.” He has written for the New York Observer, covered Congress for Roll Call, and was the politics editor for Salon. His book, which focuses on the political history of the 1990s, is due out in 2017.

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