Political reporters are encouraging DeSantis to cheat

Never Back Down ad

Super PACS are allowed to accept and spend unlimited amounts of cash, but they are legally banned from coordinating with the campaigns of the candidates they support.

Candidates’ actual campaign committees, by contrast, can by law only accept limited donations.

The idea is to avoid the corruption that is inevitable when people and corporations give millions of dollars directly to candidates.

In reality, however, candidate-specific super PACs are becoming increasingly inseparable from campaign committees – a wanton, brazen violation of one of the few election laws that remains on the books. It’s nothing short of outrageous and ought to be called out every time.

[What’s a super PAC? Learn more here.]

But our jaded, stenographic political press corps has simply accepted this as the new normal, treating the legal and illegal parts of a campaign as basically one and the same.

The most in-your-face example of cheating this election cycle is surely how Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has 1) illegally funded his super PAC and then 2) put it in charge of most of what a campaign normally does – which clearly indicates extremely close coordination.

The news headlines should loudly proclaim how DeSantis is blatantly cheating. But instead, they quietly conflate the super PAC and the campaign, as if there were no real difference between the two.

Consider the (admittedly highly entertaining) recent article by Washington Post reporters Michael Scherer and Josh Dawsey about a paid DeSantis canvasser being caught on a doorbell camera lewdly venting about the homeowner he’d just spoken with.

The headline and subhead completely conflated the super PAC and the campaign: “Door-knocker complaints show risks of DeSantis super PAC strategy; The Florida governor’s presidential campaign is relying on paid canvassers rather than volunteers“.

The naughty canvasser, Scherer and Dawsey wrote, “highlighted a potential risk of the unprecedented effort by DeSantis donors to flood early primary states with thousands of paid door knockers.”

What it really highlights, of course, is the extent of DeSantis’s cheating.

The authors did note that the canvassers were trained, deployed and paid by DeSantis’s Never Back Down super PAC. But they didn’t connect the dots.

Indeed, they actually offered cover to the super PAC, laughably asserting that it “collects unlimited donations and does not directly coordinate strategy with the candidate.” (My italics.)

That’s the party line, but who believes that, even for a second? Certainly not Scherer and Dawsey, who know better, but write worse.

“Putting out the wrong terms or conflating things can be more damaging, I think, than a lot of reporters think,” Anna Massoglia of OpenSecrets said during a recent panel discussion about soft money’s increased role in the 2024 election. .

Another sign of the closeness between the campaign and the super PAC – and of the latter’s much bigger budget – came last week as the campaign fired a handful of staffers. As the AP and others reported, they are widely expected to pop up at the super PAC before too long. So it was basically a transfer.

Nothing to see here, the stories told us. New York Times reporters Maggie Haberman and Rebecca Davis O’Brien even expressed astonishment that the campaign had such a large staff to start with, “particularly for one with a super PAC that has made a show of how much of the load it is prepared to handle.”

Similarly far from being horrified, a Politico story in June marveled at the success and spread of super PACs, and how effortlessly they seemed to meld with the related campaigns.

“Never Back Down operates side by side with the DeSantis campaign. Its buses and staffers appear at his events. And it has recently pledged a massive door-knocking effort to bolster his campaign,” Politico’s Jessica Piper and Sally Goldenberg wrote.

Is that cheating? Nah. “Some of the new strategies could test the legal limits on coordination between campaigns and super PACs,” they acknowledged. But they then pooh-poohed the idea by adding that “campaign finance experts say the groups so far seem to be complying with how the Federal Election Commission has interpreted the rules.”

Whose experts, I wonder. That assertion is true only if you consider the deadlocked FEC’s failure to enforce just about anything as a policy statement rather than a sign of complete dysfunction.

It’s true that there is, effectively, no cop on the beat. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a crime.

The Illegal Transfer

Compounding his cheating, DeSantis also funded his federal super PAC by illegally transferred leftover money from his state campaign fund. That money makes up a whopping $82.5 million of the super PAC’s $130 million raised so far. (Another $20 million came from one billionaire alone.)

First, DeSantis quietly changed state guidelines that, in previous years, would have made the transfer against Florida law.

Then, knowing there would be no negative consequences, he blatantly violated a federal campaign law that prohibits the use of money that is not subject to federal reporting requirements – namely, the $82.5 million raised by his state campaign – in federal elections.

As Steve Contorno of CNN.com put it — way too gently — the move “makes official an unprecedented effort by DeSantis allies to test the limits of campaign finance laws to benefit a presidential contender.”

The Campaign Legal Center has filed a complaint with the FEC over the transfer, but the commission remains deadlocked — with three Democrats who want to enforce what’s left of campaign finance law after the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision and three Republicans who don’t.

Not New, Just Worse

The abuse of super PACs is not new, and there have been concerns for years about their blatantly violating the no-coordination rules.

What’s changed is that journalists used to get outraged about it. In 2011, New York Times editorial writers called for a criminal investigation into candidate-specific super PACs because “[l]imits on spending used to prevent donations from becoming outright bribes, but now the limits are gone, and the path to corruption is clear.”

Back in 2012, Stephen Colbert – then in the guise of a right-wing blowhard for “The Colbert Report” — spent months calling attention to the problem by creating his own super PAC. And he got lots of mileage from a statement by American Crossroads – the super PAC overseen by Karl Rove – that its ads would be “fully coordinated” with candidates, but should not qualify as “coordinated communications.”

For the record, it’s not just DeSantis – or Republicans — playing fast and loose with the coordination rules. As Shane Goldmacher and Reid J. Epstein reported in the New York Times last week, President Biden and senior adviser Anita Dunn recently tapped a new group – Future Forward – “as the leading super PAC to help re-elect him in 2024, making it the top destination for large sums of cash from supportive billionaires and multimillionaires.”

Anyone suggesting there won’t be close coordination between that super PAC and the Biden campaign is deluding themselves.

But we’ve never seen anything like what DeSantis is doing. As Maeve Reston and Hannah Knowles noted in the Washington Post, near the bottom of a story about fundraising numbers: “In a departure from the norms of past presidential races, Never Back Down has taken on much of the DeSantis field operations, handling voter outreach tasks typically helmed by campaigns.”

The DeSantis super PAC is, effectively, his campaign committee. And rather than call him a cheater, the political media is impressed.


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