Scott Walker, Rick Perry show limits of super PACs
Turns out, billionaires can’t buy the White House.
The super PAC backing Scott Walker was on pace to raise as much as $40 million by the end of the year and planned a series of as many as 10 advertisements in Iowa to showcase the Wisconsin governor’s record.
But hours before the second advertisement was set to debut today in the pivotal caucus state, Walker abruptly ended his campaign for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, largely because he was out of cash.
His withdrawal from the GOP primary ― like that of former Texas Gov. Rick Perry earlier this month ― highlights the limitations of the new strain of megadonor-subsidized presidential politics. Big-money outside groups devoted to the two failed candidates combined to raise more than $43 million through the end of June. But when they began looking for ways to spend the bounty to boost their respective candidates’ flagging poll numbers, their efforts were complicated by tricky election laws, quirky debate qualification rules and the unpredictable rise of Donald Trump as the GOP primary leader. When Walker and Perry bowed out, the big money groups supporting them were left with significant unspent reserves that they’re expected to return to donors.
“It’s sad to me, because I feel Scott Walker is eminently qualified to be president, but it’s healthy because super PACs alone should not keep candidates in the race if they can’t stay in by themselves,” former George W. Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer. “There is something democratic about grass-roots, widespread money support. There is something anti-democratic about one person propping up a candidate who can’t make it.”
Fleischer helped lead a Republican National Committee forensic analysis of factors that stymied the GOP in the 2012 election. A significant conclusion was that rich donors could use super PACs to prop up weak candidates in primary elections, which it said “weakens our eventual nominee.” That’s what happened in the 2012 GOP primary, and some party elders worry it could be worse this time around since there are more candidates who, after studying 2012, spent months assiduously courting billionaires and multimillionaires.
The operating assumption was that, just before the campaign officially kicked off, these affluent patrons would pour six- and seven-figure checks into super PACs and other big-money groups that would absorb many of the core functions of the campaigns during the early months. That would give candidates the time and space to do the type of traditional retail politicking necessary to gain traction with the regular voters and small- to medium-dollar donors who traditionally powered campaigns.
The megadonors held up their end of the bargain. The 67 biggest donors of the race ― each of whom gave $1 million or more ― donated more than three times as much to big-money groups as the 508,000 smallest donors combined, according to a POLITICO analysis of filings with the Federal Election Commission and Internal Revenue Service. Partly as a result, the super PACs and other big-money groups devoted to specific candidates have raised more than twice as much as those candidates’ own campaigns through the end of June ― $271 million vs. $126 million.
But those groups cannot pay for the candidates’ travel, staff salaries, speechwriting or office space. And at times, they have struggled to find ways to complement their chosen candidates’ strategies ― a task made more difficult by legal prohibitions against candidates coordinating their spending with big-money groups, and advertising rules that give lower rates to candidates than outside groups.
A trio of super PACs devoted to Perry with derivations of the name “Opportunity and Freedom PAC” through the end of June had raised nearly $17 million ― most of which came from a pair of wealthy Texans. That dwarfed the $1.1 million raised by the candidate’s campaign, which was so cash-strapped that it stopped paying its staff last month. The super PAC tried to fill the void, expanding its paid organizing operation on the ground in Iowa, where he and Walker were banking on strong showings in the state’s pivotal February caucuses.
Walker once led the polls in the Hawkeye State. But, as his campaign faltered under the weight of lackluster debate performances, so, too, did his Iowa polling and his campaign’s fundraising, which struggled to sustain the campaign’s 90-person payroll. Walker resisted suggestions from donors and others to reduce his staff or shift his operation to Iowa.
Walker’s fundraising and spending figures won’t be officially released for another few weeks (the FEC deadline for filing is Oct. 15). But it’s unlikely that it raised anywhere near as much as the $26 million raised by a pair of big-money groups devoted to supporting him. A pro-Walker super PAC called Unintimidated PAC, which raised the bulk of that (with $13 million coming from seven-figure donors), this month began a planned $9-million television and digital advertising campaign in Iowa. It also planned to focus on South Carolina, another early voting state with a significant population of religious conservatives ― a demographic where Walker had some early appeal.
The original idea, according to a source familiar with Unintimidated’s strategy was to use advertising to inform voters in key early states about Walker’s record as a reformer in Wisconsin, beyond just his well-known efforts to rein in spending and limit union power. “So that, once the voters got beyond this beauty contest summer, and it came time for them to make a decision, they could judge the governor’s complete conservative record and make an informed decision,” said the source. But the source said that once Walker began struggling to get to that point, Unintimidated began planning for other possibilities.
“We didn’t have the luxury of knowing what the hard-dollar side was going to do. Had the decision been made to reduce or move staff, we were prepared to institute a ground game strategy or to shift paid media from other early states to Iowa, if that was what was required,” said the source. “We had the resources and flexibility to do that. We had a loyal group of supporters who were willing to stick with it, and a low burn rate.”
The source said Unintimidated was on track to raise $35 million to $40 million this year.
A spokesman declined to say how much the PAC had in the bank, but said it plans to “wind down our existing efforts and return remaining resources to supporters.”
In his Monday news conference announcing his decision to drop out, Walker cited a desire to help unite the GOP behind a single front-runner. But in a staff conference call beforehand, he also cited a more practical motivation. “Finances just aren’t there,” he said, according to a source who participated.
Yet, a GOP operative who worked with Walker’s campaign suggested the Wisconsin governor could have scaled back his campaign to a bare-bones operation while counting on an expanded super PAC operation. “The super PAC could have done Fox News advertising to get his numbers up nationally, and his campaign could have cut down his staff, lived off the land and waited for the field to reshuffle,” said the operative, pointing out that the top candidates in averages of national polls were invited to participate in the GOP primary debates. “Walker and Perry both could have gone on, and, at least for Walker, there’s a good argument that he got out too early.”
Minnesota broadcasting billionaire Stan Hubbard, who donated $50,000 to the PAC, suggested the only way it could have helped stanch Walker’s polling drop would have been to air national advertising. “If they had enough money, it would have been very effective in my opinion,” Hubbard said.
But Hubbard suggested Walker’s freefall was his own doing, and could be traced largely to his flat debate performance.
“When push came to shove, all that mattered is how he did in the debates,” said Hubbard. “In national politics today, you have to be a TV star and you have to have that certain something that turns people on. And for whatever reason, Scott didn’t have that,” said Hubbard, who added that he was disappointed by Walker’s withdrawal, nonetheless. “He would be a good president in my opinion.”
While Hubbard said he’s a fan of a few other GOP presidential prospects, he said he’s not in a rush to donate to any of their super PACs. “We did that with Scott, lost our money. We’ll see who comes through,” he said, arguing that none of the other candidates’ super PACs are making much impact at this stage of the race, either.
“What a super PAC can do, in my opinion, is it can buy a lot of great TV advertising once you have a race in a given market. But, until you get to the public going to the polls and voting, a super PAC can’t do a helluva lot, except maybe raise money by doing mailings.”