Candidates’ reliance on PACs grows, beginning with fundraising

The candidates whose allied super PACs and “527 groups” raised the most money

1. Jeb Bush (R): $103 million

2. Ted Cruz (R): $37.8 million

3. Scott Walker (R): $26.2 million

4. Hillary Clinton (D): $17.1 million

5. Marco Rubio (R): $16.1 million

6. Rick Perry (R): $12.8 million (dropped out of the race Friday)

As of June 30. Source: Bloomberg News compilation of campaign finance data

Debate details

When: Wednesday, 8 p.m. (main stage) and 6 p.m. (kids' table)

Location: Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Library in Simi Valley, Calif.

Moderators: CNN host Jake Tapper, CNN correspondent Dana Bash, conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt.

Candidates, in order of national polling support: Main stage — Donald Trump, Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, Ben Carson, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Mike Huckabee, Rand Paul, John Kasich, Chris Christie, Carly Fiorina. Kids' table — Rick Santorum, Bobby Jindal, George Pataki, Lindsey Graham.

Fact-checking candidates

How have the presidential hopefuls who will appear in Wednesday’s second GOP debate fared on the Truth-O-Meter? Find out here:

Cox Media Group Special Report

Daniel Malloy writes about politics for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the Cox Media Group, which includes The Austin American-Statesman, The Dayton Daily News and The Palm Beach Post. He has traveled the country to cover the 2008, 2012 and 2016 presidential elections. Malloy has been based in Washington since 2009, spending much of his time roaming the halls of Capitol Hill.

It could be a while before the Republican presidential field is small enough to fit on one debate stage.

Some of the credit, or blame, could go to loosened campaign finance rules: Of the 15 candidates spread across the two-part debate Wednesday on CNN, eight of them had raised at least $10 million among their campaigns and allied outside groups by the end of June. A ninth, businessman Donald Trump, vowed to spend hundreds of millions of dollars of his own money.

This year the newest generations of super PACs are raising record-breaking sums and evolving into de facto campaigns for some candidates, testing legal gray areas that are rarely enforced.

Wealthy backers helped Newt Gingrich, the former U.S. House speaker from Georgia, and Rick Santorum hang on into the spring of 2012 before losing the nomination, but the sums they provided look positively quaint now when compared with what the 2016 candidates raked in during their opening months.

The largest hammer of the bunch belongs to a PAC tied to former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush that boasts about a dozen staffers based in Los Angeles and a jaw-dropping $100 million raised in its debut months. The PAC, Right to Rise, launched a $24 million television ad campaign Tuesday in the early-voting states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina touting Bush's conservative record.

Right to Rise is sort of a more advanced, wealthier version of Mitt Romney’s massive Restore Our Future super PAC, which rained down attack ads in 2012.

“We may pursue some grass-roots activities, but our focus will be on communicating Jeb’s conservative record of accomplishment with voters through TV and digital advertising,” Right to Rise spokesman Paul Lindsay said.

No contender came close to matching Right to Rise’s opening number, but several have substantial sums behind them.

Texas U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz brought in $36 million in super PAC money, the vast majority coming from three families who shape the strategy of separate PACs. A pair of groups supporting Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker raised $26 million. Florida U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio's super PAC raised $16 million.

A new legal landscape

The U.S. Supreme Court's 2010 decision in Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission and follow-up cases helped create the current system: Donations directly to candidates are capped at $2,700 per election, while outside organizations can accept unlimited sums to advocate on a candidate's behalf, as long as they do not coordinate their spending with the campaign.

The arrangement creates all kinds of intricate rules. For example, a candidate can appear at a super PAC fundraiser but cannot directly ask for money beyond the $2,700 limit.

Democrats, who mostly denounced Citizens United and the influence of money in politics, have been more conflicted about taking advantage of the super PAC era. Insurgent presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders has made his rejection of big donors a signature part of his campaign.

But front-runner Hillary Clinton had raised $17.1 million through super PACs through June. In a legal filing this week, Democratic Party election lawyers asked the FEC for guidance on legal gray areas for super PAC fundraising, signaling their intention to expand their use of the groups.

A new frontier this year has come in how super PACs stage events and deploy ground staff.

CARLY for America (in another byzantine rule twist, the FEC forced it to change its name from "Carly for America" to an acronym), has hired several staffers in early states. They sign up volunteers at Fiorina events and build a list of supporters. When Fiorina appeared at the RedState Gathering in Atlanta last month, her super PAC backers set up a table to recruit supporters.

“We’re Carly’s biggest cheerleaders,” said super PAC spokeswoman Leslie Shedd, who helped run the Georgia Republican Party’s coordinated campaign in 2014.

Shedd said in many ways the super PAC mimics a party apparatus, providing a flood of staff and volunteers to make phone calls and knock on doors, as well as money for media buys. The difference is it’s happening during a primary instead of a general election, and the two sides cannot talk about how they are spending money.

The Fiorina campaign puts her schedule on a public Google calendar well in advance, which other campaigns rarely do, but it allows the super PAC to prepare for her events. Campaign spokeswoman Anna Epstein said "there is no division of labor" between the two organizations because they are not allowed to coordinate. She added: "We're excited for their support and always enjoy seeing them on the trail."

The super PAC for Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal has gone so far as to stage Jindal town hall events in Iowa and invite Jindal as a guest publicly, so as not to violate coordination law. The Believe Again PAC is also run by a consultant in the same Alexandria, Va., firm — On Message Inc. — as the Jindal campaign's top strategists.

While the Jindal super PAC has been working the ground, Jindal’s campaign is not “de-emphasizing any of the normal ground game tactics,” spokeswoman Gail Gitcho said. But she added that “since we are a campaign that has to be very penny-wise, our focus has been on earned media and retail politics.”

Paul S. Ryan of the Campaign Legal Center said such setups should raise concerns at the FEC, but the commission is deadlocked between Republicans and Democrats, so it rarely enforces anything.

“Maybe it’s not legal coordination,” Ryan said, “but it’s common-sense coordination.”

The Department of Justice announced its first-ever prosecution for super PAC-campaign coordination in February, but Ryan said he has not seen any "chilling effect" as a result.

PAC isn’t everything

A flush super PAC is not a cure-all for a dismal campaign, as former Texas Gov. Rick Perry learned.

Perry revealed last month that his campaign was running out of money and could not afford to pay staff. His super PACs, which had raised $12.8 million to the campaign's $1.1 million through the first half of the year, sprang into action.

Austin Barbour, an adviser to the PACs, said he had not planned to hire on-the-ground staff until the campaign’s struggles became clear. Barbour said the PACs needed to “diversify” their plan and started hiring Iowa staff, though because of coordination rules, Barbour said he could not hire Perry campaign staff until they had been gone from the campaign for 120 days.

But on Friday, Perry announced he was leaving the race, the first of the 17 major declared candidates to drop out.

Perry's Opportunity and Freedom PAC appeared caught unawares. Just hours earlier, it had announced a new round of Perry-boosting television ads in Iowa.