Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Steve Flowers: Inside the Statehouse: Super PACs take center stage in primaries

  As our primary selection day approaches, it appears that we are seeing significant campaign attention from the presidential candidates. The move by the Alabama Legislature to make us an early primary state was a good one.

  As is generally the case, we are seeing negative ads. That is not unusual in politics. The reason that they are employed so often is because they work. Otherwise, the media consultants would not use them. The difference in this year’s presidential contests, however, is who is paying for the ads.

  The disparaging attacks are being paid for by Super PACs and not directly by the candidates’ campaigns. These shadow campaign organizations have been created through a loophole in federal election law. These allow a candidate to organize a PAC with an innocuous name that allows them to circumvent the federal campaign contribution threshold and spend unlimited amounts of money. These Super PACs are formed in order to allow wealthy individual contributors to write very big checks. In essence these groups allow the super-rich to control the Super PACs and have a super-sized say on who will sit in the Oval Office.

  These Super PACs created for deep pocketed supporters are supposed to operate separately from campaigns, but in these presidential contests the lines have become very blurred. The rules on what amounts to coordination have been so narrowly defined that Super PACs and candidates’ campaigns appear to be one in the same.

  Federal Election Commission records reveal a good amount of correlation. Super PACs are paying staffers before they shift to campaign payrolls, and individuals and groups are writing checks to the same vendors. Super PACs and other outside organizations have sponsored nine of every ten political ads aired this year.

  Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta, has appeared at fundraisers for a pro-Clinton Super PAC called Priorities USA Action. It is well documented that former GOP candidate, Jeb Bush, delayed his presidential announcement by several months to allow his Super PAC, Right to Rise, to raise money. Right to Rise raised $103 million for Bush, while the Jeb Bush official campaign collected $11 million.

  Last year’s surprise announcement by GOP House Speaker John Boehner to resign gave rise to the selection of a new speaker. Paul Ryan, the 45-year-old Wisconsin Congressman who was a former vice presidential candidate, appears to be a good choice. Ryan comes across as sincere and well intentioned. He comes across as direct, confident but not cocky or abrasive. He strikes you as someone who is doing the job for the right reasons. He obviously is living within his means on his congressional salary. He sleeps in his office rather than opting for an apartment or swanky Georgetown residence.

  For years it was thought that being a governor was not only the best training ground for president but also the best stepping stone. That has not been the case this year. In a record size Republican field, the first two horses to fade and fail were Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and Texas Governor Rick Perry.

  It has instead been a year for outsiders. The GOP field has been led by completely inexperienced political novices. Celebrity billionaire Donald Trump, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, and former CEO Carly Fiorina have stolen the show. These three political newcomers have never won an election or even run for public office.

  It appears that Donald Trump is poised to carry Alabama next week. He leads overwhelmingly in the polls and has garnered a good cadre of political face cards who have rallied to the frontrunner. Perry Hooper, Jr., a well-known establishment Republican figure, heads his campaign. Hooper is joined by State Representatives Jim Carnes, Tim Wadsworth, Ed Henry, and Barry Moore.

  It will be interesting to see the outcome. Many national political experts predict that Trump may falter prior to the GOP nomination convention. They believe that at the end of the day the 2016 Republican nominee will be someone who actually has held office. Conventional prognosticators predict that Florida Senator Marco Rubio or Texas Senator Ted Cruz will ultimately be the nominee. We will see.

  About the author: Steve Flowers is Alabama’s leading political columnist. His column appears weekly in 72 Alabama newspapers. Steve served 16 years in the state legislature. He may be reached at He can also be found on Facebook and Twitter.

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