This year for the first time, super PACs spent big money on a mayoral primary in Philadelphia.
In 2012, super PACs, also known as independent expenditure groups, emerged as huge players in the presidential race as a way for donors to get around rules that keep them from writing large checks directly to candidates.
While Philadelphia turned out to be a proving ground for super PACs in local races, the results suggest money alone can’t ensure a win.
‘Politics has changed’
Bill Hyers says he “doesn’t love” super PACs.
Still, the star campaign consultant behind Philadelphia Mayor Nutter’s 2007 win (and in 2013, New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio’s) recently found himself leading such a group backing mayoral candidate Jim Kenney.
“I didn’t want to honestly,” said Hyers, “But … the fact of the matter is, politics has changed and whether you like it or not, and I’m not somebody who loves it, more money is being spent outside campaigns than inside campaigns commonly.”
Back in January, Hyers and media consultant Ken Snyder were working for former city solicitor Ken Trujillo before he dropped out of the race for personal reasons. Hyers joined the team that convinced Kenney, a longtime city councilman, to enter the contest. When Kenney did, Hyers realized his role would have to change.
Kenney entered the race late and was behind on fundraising. Plus, the city’s campaign finance laws would strictly limit the size of donations he could get in the months to come. Even more threatening was the notion that three wealthy financial executives from the Philadelphia suburbs were likely to form a super PAC that could pour millions of dollars into rival candidate, state Sen. Anthony Williams.
“It was pretty clear to us that we were going to need some help from the outside,” said Snyder, who stayed on as a media consultant for Kenney’s campaign.
Hyers became the general consultant for Forward Philadelphia, one of two super PACs that helped Kenney win the Democratic primary on May 19.
All told, three super PACs spent more than $7.5 million as of the most recent campaign finance filings — twice as much as all six Democratic candidates spent combined. That number will go up when political committees file the next round of campaign finance reports on Thursday.
While they can raise and spend as much money as they want, independent expenditure groups are legally barred from coordinating directly with candidates or their campaigns.
That’s why Hyers “doesn’t love” super PACs — they can keep candidates from telling their own story in ubiquitous TV and radio ads, which he says are still the No. 1 thing that moves voters to the polls.
“We had to put out positive Kenney ads … and we had to understand what his message was and put it out for him without his approval, which is a nerve-wracking thing because we wanted him to win,” he said.
Hyers had the advantage of having worked closely in the past with several of Kenney’s staffers, including Snyder, campaign manager Jane Slusser and communications director Lauren Hitt. Although, once he entered the world of independent expenditures, Hyers had to send them all a note.
“You can’t talk to me,” he reminded them, an experience he described as “weird and sad.”
One of the only ways to “communicate across the wall,” Snyder said, was for Hitt to put out multiple press releases a day meant not just for the eyes of the media, but also to send a message to outside groups.
It paid off.
“There’s no way we go from 14 points down [in the polls] to 4 points up the day we started advertising without the work that the [independent expenditures] did,” Snyder said.
‘Very legitimate, very potentially powerful tool’
Forward Philadelphia and a second super PAC called Building a Better PA — both funded mostly by labor unions — spent more than $2 million backing Kenney. But the biggest spender in the race by far was a super PAC called American Cities.
The group was funded by three wealthy financial executives from the Philadelphia suburbs who spent more than $5 million to support Williams.
Williams lost by 30 points.
Perhaps one reason American Cities’ money failed to move voters is that it is an ideological PAC, devoted not just to a candidate, but also to a cause: expanding charter schools and vouchers.
“The amount of money that went into this race was driven by the commitment to advocate for the kids of Philadelphia who are stuck in violent failing schools,” said the group’s attorney Mark Alderman. “And the advocacy was every bit as much about school choice and those kids as it was about Sen. Williams and his campaign.”
One reason super PACs came to play in Philadelphia is the city’s campaign finance laws, which limit contributions to $2,900 from individual donors and $11,500 from organizations.
A bigger reason, Alderman said, is that, ever since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2010 that corporations have free speech rights, super PACs have become a critical part of the political playbook.
“It is more that they are a very legitimate and very potentially powerful tool,” he said.
Alderman pointed out it was called “American Cities” plural for a reason, suggesting the funders behind the PAC may look to spend on other races in other places.
Critics of super PACs say they allow special interests to essentially buy elections. But if groups like American Cities could spend more than $5 million and still lose, does it really matter?
Yes, said Edwin Bender, executive director of the National Institute on Money in State Politics.
His argument is that eventually, these groups are going to get it right and start winning elections.
“It is right now the new kid on the block and it will through trial and error eventually find out its path for success,” he said.
Bender’s organization mainly tracks super PAC spending in statewide races, but he is starting to see more independent expenditures on the local level. He even spotted a news story about super PAC spending in a school board race in North Jersey.
Super PACs pose challenges for watchdogs
The fact that most of the money spent on Philadelphia’s mayoral primary came from super PACs is posing new challenges for the Philadelphia Board of Ethics, which is charged with enforcing that “no coordination” rule.
“It’s challenging for us to find evidence of coordination,” said executive director Shane Creamer. “It’s not like other rules that we administer and enforce like the contribution limits where you can independently verify through bank records whether or not there’s been an excess contribution.”
Creamer’s staff ends up scouring the Internet to find the sources of videos and images super PACs used in their TV ads to make sure they’re from independent sources and didn’t illegally come from campaigns.
Meanwhile, Philadelphia City Council recently passed a bill that would require super PACs to disclose their spending more often in future elections.
It’s a sign super PACs are here to stay.
That means more work for the Ethics Board, but Creamer said it’s worth it.
“As long as they’re paying by the rules, and we’re going to look very carefully at that line of coordination and if anybody steps over that line, we’ll be there to enforce the contribution limits,” he said.
Correction: The following sentence originally read, “There’s no way we go from 14 points down [in the polls] to 14 points up the day we started advertising without the work that the [independent expenditures] did,” Snyder said.
Kenney was up 4 points, not 14. This story has been updated to reflect the correction.