Coordination Watch, May 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 garnering 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? 

In April, Joe Biden’s presidential campaign issued a statement signaling its support for Priorities USA Action, the Democratic super PAC that previously supported Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaigns. According to the Wall Street Journal, the statement sent “a message to top donors about where they should give money.” 

Now both major 2020 presidential candidates have endorsed supportive outside groups that can accept unlimited amounts of money from donors. 

Last year, Donald Trump’s campaign issued a statement calling America First Action the sole “approved outside non-campaign group” supporting his reelection. The president has also appeared at multiple fundraising events for the super PAC, and Trump’s campaign even rented its email list to the group last month, allowing America First Action to solicit its donors directly. 

Learn more.

Is an outside group running an essential part of a candidate’s campaign? 

Campaigns are usually responsible for getting the word out about how supporters can donate to them. But this election cycle, the Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC dedicated to electing Republican Senate candidates, has paid for mass text communications that link directly to fundraising pages for several candidates — leading to questions about which funders are helping underwrite solicitations for senators’ campaigns.

In April, Dan Baer, a former Democratic challenger to Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO), filed an FEC complaint alleging that the text messages sent by the super PAC that encouraged donations to Gardner’s campaign and linked to his campaign website violated coordination rules. 

The Senate Leadership Fund has also directed voters to a fundraising page for the campaigns of at least four other senators up for reelection this fall: Sens. Joni Ernst (R-IA), Mitch McConnell (R-KY), Martha McSally (R-AZ), and Thom Tills (R-NC).

A similar tactic was used during the 2020 Democratic presidential primary by Act Now on Climate, a super PAC that supported Gov. Jay Inslee’s failed presidential bid.

Additionally, a conservative-leaning watchdog group filed an FEC complaint in April against a 501(c)(4) “social welfare” organization called Stronger America Fund after it produced text messages opposing Rep. Chris Stewart (R-UT). The complaint notes that Stronger America Fund and the campaign of Utah Republican Mary Burkett, who is waging a primary challenge against Stewart, “both appear to be affiliated with the same individual during the time Stronger America Fund disseminated and paid for a communication beneficial to Burkett,” which, if true, “would constitute an illegal in-kind contribution to Burkett’s campaign.”

Stronger America Fund’s founder and chief official is Patrick Krason, who has also been described as the Burkett campaign’s manager, spokesperson, and treasurer.

Learn more.

Are a candidate and an outside group using the same vendor for expenditures? 

The Daily Beast reported that digital ad firm IMGE has been hired by both Republican John James’ 2020 Senate campaign and a dark money group called Better Future Michigan, which is supporting James’ candidacy. This relationship is a clear breach of the “firewall” policies, meant to prevent communication about strategy, that should exist when campaigns and outside groups share a common vendor.   

The James campaign first paid IMGE on June 5, 2019. Less than three weeks later, IMGE created Better Future Michigan’s website, according to web registration records reviewed by The Daily Beast. Yet hours after The Daily Beast asked the James campaign about this shared vendor, Better Future Michigan’s website registration data was “scrubbed of fingerprints tying it to IMGE.” 

Since January 2019, FEC records show the James campaign has paid IMGE roughly $360,000.

Learn more.

Did a candidate help start an outside group before launching their campaign? 

Earlier this year, Common Cause filed an FEC complaint against Our Revolution, the 501(c)(4) “social welfare” organization established by Bernie Sanders after his unsuccessful 2016 presidential campaign. Published reports indicate that the group is continuing to urge its members to encourage voters to support Sanders in the presidential primary to help him earn more delegates — and implement policy changes at the Democratic National Convention — despite the fact that Sanders dropped out of the race on April 8.

Learn more.

Read previous updates here.

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 remains essentially shut down, lacking 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).

Michael Beckel contributed to this report.