The Talent Following the Super-PAC Money

In another sign that the invisible primary for president is moving a whole lot faster this cycle than we might expect, there’s another indicator that Super-PACs will be vastly more important than in 2012 on the Republican side. That’s saying a lot considering that the two chief rivals to Mitt Romney once votes started being cast were heavily dependent on these beasts.

National Journal‘s Tim Alberta and Shane Goldmacher have the latest story:

Mike Murphy was destined to be the chief strategist for Jeb Bush’s 2016 White House campaign. The California-based Republican operative has been a close friend and confidant to Bush for decades; he knows the candidate inside and out. Indeed, when the former Florida governor began the exploratory phase of his presidential effort late last year, Murphy was manning the controls—playing a central role in deciding where Bush would go, what he would say and to whom. This is precisely the part he was expected to play in Bush’s presidential effort. And yet, it is increasingly likely, according to Republicans inside Bush’s orbit, that throughout the official campaign, the candidate and confidant will barely speak.

That’s because Murphy is expected to run Bush’s super PAC—an accompanying outside group that can raise unlimited contributions, but whose officials cannot communicate with the candidate or any campaign officials.

That Bush’s team would believe it’s in his best interest to send away a top strategist is an emphatic indication that the era of super PAC supremacy has arrived. Viewed at the outset of the 2012 presidential cycle as illegitimate if not downright unethical—so much so that President Obama initially forbade his lieutenants from forming one on his behalf—super PACs emerged by Election Day 2012 as the most devastating force in modern presidential politics. Their ability to raise bottomless money, and the deployment of those funds toward destroying rival candidates, instantly altered the political landscape, and in the 2016 campaign’s nascent stages, their reach has dwarfed that of official campaigns.

But isn’t it kind of weird, and potentially either dangerous (if the law is complied with) or grossly illegal (if it’s not) to locate not only the financial but the operational control of a presidential campaign in an organization that’s not supposed to coordinate with the candidate?

Alberta and Goldmacher answer that with a metaphor that I bet we are going to hear a lot this cycle:

Candidates are looking for the political equivalent of a perfect bridge partner, someone with whom they can continually cooperate without ever being able to coordinate—or ever ask for advice. The imperative for a candidate is to choose “someone you love but can live without,” says Stuart Roy, who in 2012 advised the pro-Rick Santorum super PAC the Red White and Blue Fund. “It ranks right there with the top personnel decisions that a campaign makes for an entire cycle.”

The trend is demonstrated by campaigns other than Bush’s:

Rand Paul recently tapped Jesse Benton, a family member and longtime associate who ran his Senate campaign as well as his father’s 2012 presidential bid, to take the wheel of America’s Liberty PAC. An alliance of super PACs supporting Ted Cruz have been organized by close friends, including Texas attorney Dathan Voelter, and sources close to Cruz expect him to designate a top political lieutenant to take over the reportedly $31 million outfit. And Carly Fiorina’s super PAC, Carly for America, is being led by Steve DeMaura, a friend and associate who formerly was the political director of Fiorina’s other political action committee.

In any previous cycle, it’s a near-certainty that these people and others tapped to run a candidate’s super PAC would have served in a principal position on the campaign—as a senior strategist, or political director, or even perhaps campaign manager.

This isn’t, to be sure, an entirely new phenomenon in American politics. Elected officials have long had to deal with rules requiring strict separation of “government” and “campaign” activities. When I worked for Georgia governor Zell Miller on the eve of an existential challenge of a re-election campaign in 1994, the separation was so strict that those of us who remained in the governor’s office referred to the campaign as “Angka,” after the shadowy committee that once ran the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. We learned “Angka’s” wishes through extremely indirect hints and entrail-reading, and never spoke to them.

But the new Super-PAC dominated regime could eventually hearken back to a much older era of American politics: the nineteenth century convention of “front-porch campaigns” for president in which the candidate himself was pretty much out of sight. One of the reasons for that convention was to insulate the Next President of the United States from the deals and vicious tactics and overall shenanigans of the campaign. That could be the case once again.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.