The 2016 presidential election will be remembered for the creative and ridiculous ways candidates and their outside groups have mocked campaign finance laws. The 2016 landscape is littered with “independent” political organizations that, while not official campaign organs, are nonetheless doing the jobs of the various presidential campaigns, bolstered by unlimited donations and confident that they won’t be sanctioned or bothered by a feckless and impotent Federal Election Commission.
There are a wealth of examples to choose from. Jeb Bush spent six months “deciding” whether we was going to run for president so he dodge restrictions on raising funds for and coordinating with his super PAC, Right to Rise. It didn’t matter that Jeb, during this period of “deciding,” was hiring staff and developing a policy platform and doing literally everything a presidential candidate does. He could make a winking, dishonest case that since he hadn’t officially declared, he wasn’t officially a “candidate,” and there was nothing the FEC could do.
Rick Perry’s presidential “campaign” doesn’t seem to exist in any meaningful way anymore – all his staff quit because he has no money to pay them – but he soldiers on as a candidate because he has super PACs stepping in to fill those gaps. Hillary Clinton’s campaign apparatus is orbited by outside groups that are actively pushing the murky legal boundaries on coordination.
But no group seems more brazen than Carly Fiorina’s super PAC, CARLY for America, which fully embodies the “up yours, FEC” spirit, right down to its name.
CARLY for America used to be called “Carly for America,” but earlier this year the Federal Election Commission told them that it was illegal for the group to use Carly’s name in its own name. The solution they came up with was to change “Carly” to “CARLY,” which is a backronym for “Conservative, Authentic, Responsive Leadership for You.” So they’re not using her name, they’re just using a word that has the same letters arranged in the same order as her name. And the FEC seems to be okay with that because, again, our campaign finance laws are loophole-ridden and barely enforceable.
Since then, CARLY for America has found new and exciting ways to mock the FEC and treat campaign finance regulations as the joke they are. National Journal’s Emma Roller has an excellent report on how Carly Fiorina’s “campaign” is actually CARLY for America showing up and doing all the campaign stuff.
At a typical Fiorina campaign stop, a CARLY For America staffer was stationed at a table outside of the event space to sign up attendees for the super PAC’s email list. Another staffer handed out CARLY For America stickers to attendees as they arrived. When Fiorina and her staff entered the event, they were usually met by a room covered in red “CARLY” signs and tables covered in pro-Fiorina literature, all produced by CARLY For America.
It’s a neat little game that the official Fiorina campaign and CARLY for America are playing. By law, they’re not allowed to coordinate, but the two organizations are clearly in concert and the super PAC is paying for infrastructure that the campaign clearly benefits from – every staffer, yard sign, and bumper sticker provided by CARLY for America is one staffer, yard sign, and bumper sticker the campaign doesn’t have to pay for. But because they’re not “coordinating” – the super PAC says it relies on the campaign’s public schedule of events to know where it is supposed to go – they can make the case that they’re not violating the letter of the law, even if the spirit of the law is being trampled to death. The idea that CARLY for America is an “independent” organization is, in practice, ludicrous. But it and the Carly campaign can maintain this farce because they occupy a vast legal gray area in which things like “coordination” and “in-kind contributions” are poorly defined.
All this is obviously quite shady and ripe for abuse, and the shabby state of campaign finance laws will almost certainly lead to a massive scandal as campaigns and their “independent” outside groups grow bolder in their disdain for rules against coordination. And that’s the potential silver lining here – the only way we seem capable of pursuing meaningful reform on anything is in the aftermath of a shockingly brazen act of illegality that makes it impossible to keep on pretending that the current laws work.