Arizona Public Radio | Your Source for NPR News
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Coming To A Mayor's Race Near You: SuperPACs Moving Into Cities

Democratic mayoral candidate Jim Kenney benefited from a super PAC that helped him win in the city's Democratic primary election.
Matt Slocum
Democratic mayoral candidate Jim Kenney benefited from a super PAC that helped him win in the city's Democratic primary election.

Big spending by superPACs has become a fact of life in federal election campaigns, permitting wealthy donors to spend millions to support candidates for president, and increasingly for Congress. Now, superPACs are becoming players in state and local elections as well.

Three superPACs raised and spent more than $10 million total in Philadelphia's mayoral election this year. That's roughly twice the spending of the candidates themselves, who were bound by contribution limits in city election law.

Mayoral superPACs have also been active this year in Chicago, Nashville and Washington, D.C.

Former City Councilman Jim Kenney won a landslide victory in Philadelphia's May Democratic primary with the help of about $3 million in spending by two superPACs funded mostly by unions.

In Philadelphia, where Democrats hold a 7-to-1 registration edge over Republicans, winning the party primary virtually assures victory in the general election. Kenney is expected to cruise to an easy win Nov. 3 over Republican Melissa Murray-Bailey, a newcomer to politics.

Philadelphia imposed contribution limits on city campaigns in 2003, but the 2010 Citizens United ruling and other court decisions spawned the creation of superPACs, independent groups that can raise and spend unlimited sums as long as they don't coordinate with candidates they support.

A Political Ecosystem

The superPACs in the Philly mayor's race weren't national groups funded by ideological donors. They were local players with a particular policy interest or connection to a candidate.

They found a political ecosystem now stocked with lawyers, fundraisers and consultants who know how to set up and run superPACs at the congressional and state level, so a tool for getting around contribution limits was readily at hand.

"They saw how it worked on a national platform," said Larry Ceisler, a veteran political and public relations consultant in Philadelphia. "And people thought, 'can we bring the same source of campaign money to a local race?' And the answer was obviously, 'yes.'"

Lynne Abraham, the only woman in the field, entered the race leading in name recognition from her 19 years as a popular district attorney. But she didn't have a superPAC on her side, and couldn't match their fundraising. She quickly moved back in the pack and finished third.

"I couldn't get my message out, that's it," Abraham said in a recent interview. "It puts you at a tremendous competitive disadvantage. It's very hard."

The biggest-spending superPAC in the race, called American Cities, was funded primarily by three wealthy suburban securities traders who are avid proponents of school vouchers and charter schools. Their PAC spent a whopping $7 million on behalf of state Sen. Anthony Williams, who was considered a favorite by many early in the contest. Despite the huge edge in TV advertising, Williams got only 26 percent of the vote in a six-candidate race, less than half of Kenney's total.

Analysts say one reason Williams got so little bang for his superPAC's bucks is that its wealthy funders declined to go negative in the campaign, producing only positive ads for Williams, and spots promoting school choice.

"Traditionally, independent expenditure positive ads are the toughest to do," said Chris Mottola, a veteran Republican media consultant, "because you always have to make do without access to the candidate."

"Also, I think voters instinctively know that this is a third party talking about a candidate, and they are suspicious and resistant to the information," Mottola said.

'Nod And Wink'

The Philadelphia Ethics Board has imposed regulations on superPACs that make it even harder for them to produce effective positive ads for candidates. The board's executive director Shane Creamer says one rule is aimed at "nod and wink" coordination between superPACs and the candidates they back.

"A classic example of nod and wink coordination would be where a candidate uploads video of the candidate to a third party source like You Tube," Creamer said, "and then a supporting PAC would pull down that video, and re-package it in the form of a TV ad."

That's common in congressional races, where superPACs produce slick ads with video shot by a candidate's campaign, because the Federal Election Commission is gripped by partisan gridlock and unable to enforce tough rules on coordination.

The Philadelphia Ethics Board has also gotten the City Council to impose more frequent reporting requirements on superPACs and candidates. And they've imposed new rules designed to shine a light on so-called "dark money," forcing nonprofit groups that spend in city elections to reveal their donors.

Creamer says until federal law changes, it seems superPACs are here to stay in local elections.

Copyright 2015 WHYY

Dave Davies is a guest host for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.