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

Outside groups, like super PACs and dark money organizations, frequently skirt anti-coordination rules designed to prevent wealthy donors and special interests from garnering undue influence in our elections.

Issue One published a groundbreaking report last month called “Coordination Watch,” designed to help the public and the press identify coordination between outside groups and candidates. 

This project detailed six questions to help spot activities that may constitute coordination that would be illegal if the FEC was doing its job, such as “Is a candidate raising money for an outside group?,” “Is an outside group running an essential part of a candidate’s campaign?,” and “Has a candidate appeared in ads sponsored by an outside group?”

Here are some examples highlighted by the media that fall under the six coordination questions we asked: 

Example of a candidate appearing to help raise money for an outside group 

Candidates may try to get around anti-corruption laws that prohibit them from raising large sums of money by appearing at fundraising events for super PACs and dark money groups — but having other people explicitly ask for contributions. On February 12, President Donald Trump appeared at a fundraising committee reception at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C., for America First Action, the pro-Trump super PAC that his campaign explicitly endorsed and which raised $19 million last year to aid Trump’s 2020 reelection bid.

Learn more.

Example of an outside group appearing to run an essential part of a candidate’s campaign

Earlier this month, a strategist for Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg’s campaign tweeted out a message that, according to Politico, “looks like a call for a big-money TV ad campaign” on its behalf in Nevada. Eight days later, the VoteVets super PAC purchased $500,000 in pro-Buttigieg ads in the state — leading the Campaign Legal Center to file a complaint with the Federal Election Commission. 

Buttigieg also spoke at an event in New Hampshire that was organized, at least in part, by the VoteVets Action Fund — the dark money affiliate of the VoteVets super PAC that has spent roughly $2.4 million on ads touting his candidacy. 

Furthermore, the VoteVets super PAC hired a former Buttigieg campaign fundraiser, and several major Buttigieg campaign donors made sizable first-time contributions to VoteVets in January, Politico reported. As Issue One Executive Director Meredith McGehee noted: “When staff goes over to a super PAC, that throws independence [of the PAC] out the window.”

Learn more.

Example of a candidate helping start an outside group before launching their campaign

Our Revolution is the 501(c)(4) “social welfare” organization established by Bernie Sanders after his unsuccessful 2016 presidential campaign. The group, against which Common Cause recently filed an FEC complaint, is now ramping up its involvement in the 2020 election. 

Media reports indicate that Our Revolution is “organizing phone banking, canvassing, and other volunteer efforts to boost Sanders’ campaign,” and it was one of nine pro-Sanders groups that formed a coalition in January called “People Power for Bernie,” which plans to mobilize at least 1.4 million primary voters for Sanders.

Learn more.

Example of a candidate appearing in ads sponsored by an outside group

A complaint was filed with the FEC against the VoteVets Action Fund, alleging it illegally coordinated with Cal Cunningham, a Democratic U.S. Senate candidate in North Carolina. Cunningham’s campaign uploaded several photos to the public photo-sharing website Flickr.com that were used by the VoteVets Action Fund in ads just days later.

Learn more.

What can be done to stop coordination?

Worryingly, 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 regularly flouting the rules on the books.

And today, the FEC is essentially shut down, as it has lacked the quorum necessary to conduct most official business — including taking enforcement actions against those who violate anti-coordination rules — since September 1, 2019

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).

Amisa Ratliff contributed to this report.