ALFORD: Limitless Fundraising Creates a Political Wild West

How much money does a Louisiana politician need to win? More. In the increasingly competitive world of high-stakes elections, the answer is simply more.

In the not-too-distant past consultants could tell candidates that $7 million was required to become governor, or $2 million for a congressional seat. But that threshold, especially in recent years, has become a moving target as more third party groups supplement spending and the courts make way for special political action committees to raise unlimited cash.

The latter are known as super PACs and they’re the ultimate status symbol. Created in the wake of 2010’s SpeechNow.org case against the Federal Election Commission, super PACs can raise as much money as they wish, all in the name of political speech, from companies, special interests and individuals. They can then spend it demonizing or blessing a candidate.

Free of donation limits and saddled with only mild reporting requirements, it’s the wild west of political money. If a candidate can attract enough attention from super PACs, winning becomes fairly inexpensive. But they also lose some control over the campaign process, since there can be no coordination. It’s a tradeoff many are willing to make.

Super PACs gained early influence over national elections, but are now a major factor on the state level. An example is the Fund for Louisiana’s Future, created to support U.S. Sen. David Vitter’s campaign for governor. While the rules prohibit super PACs from communicating with candidates, there are no prescripts on the targeted campaigns giving them money.

Few knew this until Vitter’s Senate campaign donated $100,000 to FLF in February, which is undoubtedly the vainest contribution of the election cycle. It’s also the boldest workaround — Vitter cannot use money from his federal campaign account to run for governor, but he can legally funnel it through the FLF super PAC. That may be why, in April, Vitter sent an email to supporters asking for donations for his Senate campaign while referencing a financial need for his gubernatorial bid.

Before FLF came on the scene, super PACs could only accept $100,000 maximum donations for state elections, despite the unlimited federal rule. But it challenged the constitutionality of the state law in court and won. Now the floodgates in Louisiana are opening.

In what may be a sign that political parties are feeling the heat from super PACs, the Republican National Committee and the Louisiana Republican Party filed suit in federal court three weeks ago challenging laws that prevent them from having independent-expenditure accounts with unlimited fundraising capabilities.

The rise of super PACS has created competition for the parties, which must adhere to giving limits. As an operative recently asked me, why would a major donor nickel and dime their influence when they could instead sink $1 million into a focused effort? For the GOP, this is about self-preservation.

The state party wants to control a super PAC without it being labeled as such, for doing so would bar them from coordinating with campaigns. Party sources say the goal is to get the new independent expenditure accounts operational in time for 2016, which coincides with the next elections for president, Congress and Louisiana’s other U.S. Senate seat, now held by Vitter. With the lawsuit newly minted, the next questions become why Louisiana and will the Democrats follow suit.

There’s definitely an upside for candidates. Aside from being able to tap into more spending, it allows them to stay mostly positive while outside groups go negative on their behalf. That’s the case in the U.S. Senate race between incumbent Mary Landrieu and Congressman Bill Cassidy, where campaign ads have been outnumbered by outsider commercials.

With unlimited fundraising already an early plot element in the race for governor, and an emerging one for state parties, it’s safe to assume the super PAC approach could eventually play a role in legislative elections and possibly local contests. But it’s just a warning shot right now and we’ll soon enough see the real and sobering aftereffects in Louisiana’s government.

By drowning out the voices of those with narrow pockets, editing exchanges between candidates and generally blocking access to the democratic process, this trend of no-limits fundraising will indeed create some very dangerous limits, unintended or not.