Coordination Watch, August 2020: Media reports draw attention to coordination issues with super PACs, outside groups in 2020 races

Outside groups, especially super PACs and dark money organizations, frequently skirt anti-coordination rules designed to prevent wealthy donors and special interests from wielding undue influence in our elections– effectively violating contribution limits that protect against “corruption or the appearance of corruption.”

Begun earlier this year, Coordination Watch identifies notable instances of coordination between outside groups and candidates.

This project details six questions to help spot activities that may constitute coordination that would be illegal if the Federal Election Commission (FEC) was doing its job: 

  • Is a candidate raising money for an outside group? 
  • Is an outside group running an essential part of a candidate’s campaign? 
  • Has a candidate appeared in ads sponsored by an outside group?
  • Did a candidate help start an outside group before launching their campaign?
  • Is a candidate sharing strategic information with an outside group, or vice versa?
  • Are a candidate and an outside group using the same vendor for expenditures?

Here are some examples recently reported by the media that fall into these categories:

Is a candidate raising money for an outside group?

On July 25, President Donald Trump appeared as a guest of honor at a fundraiser for America First Action, the pro-Trump super PAC that his campaign has called the sole “approved outside non-campaign group” supporting his reelection. As Issue One has previously noted, the president has appeared at multiple fundraising events for the super PAC this election cycle.

Learn more.

Has a candidate appeared in ads sponsored by an outside group? 

In June, the campaign of Democratic Senate candidate John Hickenlooper, the former governor of Colorado, published written materials on a public website. Then, Senate Majority PAC, a major super PAC that supports Democratic senate candidates, ran an ad using similar language — as well as video Hickenlooper’s campaign had previously published from his 2014 gubernatorial campaign. This sparked an FEC complaint from the watchdog group FACT, alleging that there was reason to believe the Hickenlooper campaign solicited, and Senate Majority PAC made, an illegal in-kind contribution in the form of a TV ad — which would be a violation of anti-coordination rules. 

In June, ahead of the open seat Democratic primary race in New York’s 17th Congressional District, the campaign of Democrat Mondaire Jones, posted 2 hours of b-roll footage on YouTube.com. Just days later, a super PAC called Fight for the American Dream PAC ran ads on Facebook that appeared to use that footage. The Daily Beast also noted that the super PAC used the same vendor for ad purchases that the Mondaire campaign used — another way that outside groups and campaigns may evade anti-coordination rules if the vendor does not have a firewall policy in place.

As Issue One has previously noted, a number of outside groups in recent years have used “b-roll” footage posted online by Democratic and Republican candidates — leading to numerous FEC complaints on which the commissioners have repeatedly deadlocked.

Learn more.

What can be done to stop coordination?

In the 10 years since the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision opened the floodgates for unlimited spending by dark money groups and super PACs, the dysfunctional FEC has never punished anyone for illegally coordinating, despite groups blatantly and regularly flouting the rules on the books.

When it comes to enforcement, the FEC has been essentially shut down, lacking the quorum necessary to conduct most official business — including taking enforcement actions against those who violate anti-coordination rules — since July 4, 2020.

Not only should the FEC enforce the rules on the books to ensure that outside groups truly operate independently from candidates, but Congress should also strengthen existing anti-coordination laws by passing the bipartisan Political Accountability and Transparency Act (H.R. 679).

Michael Beckel contributed to this report.