A bridge too far? Outside spender strategizes with members of Congress

A picture of the Koch brothers with the phrase "GET THE TRUTH" in bold and the url to a website called realkochfacts.com
A still from a 2014 ad by American Bridge 21st Century PAC; Image credit: Youtube

While it’s been widely reported that super PACs and the big donors behind them are gearing up to play a huge role in the presidential election, the walls between those supposedly independent groups and the candidates they are backing are increasingly porous.

In a recent piece from Politico on a meeting by Democratic lawmakers in Philadelphia, Tarini Parti reports that some of the party’s congressional leadership met with the American Bridge 21st Century Foundation, the nonprofit arm of the liberal opposition research group. American Bridge’s super PAC, its other arm, has been one of the largest producers of anti-Koch messaging and Democrats are formulating a strategy to contend with the $900 million from the conservative duo’s donor network.

Public talks with a super PAC’s sister organization may look like coordination to the average bear, but it is likely not, in fact, “coordination” in the eyes of the Federal Elections Commission, which enforces campaign law.

The independence of corporate entities spending unlimited sums to influence elections was a central tenet of the majority opinion in the 2010 Citizens United case. In the majority opinion, Supreme Court Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy argued that money spent independently of candidates would not lead to quid pro quo corruption of lawmakers.

While an independent super PAC could not legally assist a candidate in the planning of a television ad or pay the campaign to air the spot, it can take publicly available information, like “b-roll” footage of the candidate and her talking points, and craft its own ad. Similarly, the reports on American Bridge’s website critical of Republicans and conservatives, are fair game for use by candidates’ committees.

A pioneer in the field of super PACs, American Bridge focuses on digging up dirt on GOP candidates, providing ammo for Democrats’ campaign ads and surfacing potential Republican missteps and scandals, like when Rep. Todd Akin, R-Mo., made his now-infamous comments on “legitimate rape.”

Opposition research could prove valuable on the campaign trail, but it’s not considered an “in-kind” contribution under regulations as long as it is publicly disseminated, on an open Twitter feed or website for example.

American Bridge has already assembled a “scouting report” on each of the prospective Republican presidential candidates, chock full of details on everything from the time Chris Christie told a reporter to “sit down and shut up” to the secret society Rand Paul joined as an undergraduate at Baylor University. It also runs online ads of its own, targeting Republicans in high profile races.

Its techniques have even inspired a conservative foil: America Rising, which launched a super PAC dedicated to “exposing the truth about Democrats through video tracking, research, and communications” in 2013.

Though documents filed with the FEC and IRS show the PAC and its nonprofit have different offices, the two organizations are run out of the same office building and share a telephone number. The super PAC was founded by David Brock, founder of the liberal media watchdog group Media Matters and before that best known for writing about then-President Bill Clinton’ alleged marital infidelities for the conservative American Spectator.

Campaign disclosures collected by Sunlight’s Real-Time Federal Campaign Finance tracker show the super PAC raised more than $15 million in the 2014 cycle, including $1 million from Democratic donor George Soros, $500,000 from California inventor Mark Heising and $500,000 from Massachusetts philanthropist Barbara Lee, among other six-figure contributions. The PAC also received an additional $2.3 million in money routed through its foundation.