Before Carly Fiorina announced she was running for president, she sat down to tape footage for a supportive political action committee that is poised to begin running it this week as part of a pro-Fiorina documentary — in a move that tests the spirit of campaign finance laws.
Both Ohio Gov. John Kasich and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush have done the same thing, sitting down to film with super PACs supporting their campaigns, despite laws that say the candidates and PACs aren’t allowed to coordinate.
The trick, in each case, was the candidates sat down in the weeks and months before they officially declared, making it legal, but calling into question the efficacy of the campaign finance laws that prohibit coordination.
“It is not the spirit of the law,” said Ford O’Connell, a GOP strategist. “They might be abiding by the letter of the law, but this is not what was intended.”
Mr. O’Connell said that there is a “very blurry line” that is making it “hard to tell where the campaign ends and the super PAC begins.”
“I think eventually you are going to have reform on this, but as of right now it is open season for everyone,” he said. “How the super PAC evolved from 2012 to now is amazing. Eventually someone is going to have to put their foot down, and the only question is when.”
Born in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, which kept in place limits on candidates’ campaigns but took the reins off outside interest groups, super PACs played a big role in the 2012 campaign, and are stretching their wings this year.
The PACs are free to raise and spend unlimited amounts of money, including taking massive donations from individual donors — but they are not supposed to have any contact with declared candidates, which would be illegal coordination. So candidates and PACs have invented all sorts of workarounds, including the campaigns telegraphing their strategies publicly so the PACs know how to proceed and working out details beforehand.
That’s the case with the footage now being used in ads.
The Carly for America super PAC on Tuesday is holding a world premiere event to launch their “Citizen Carly” documentary at the Arlington Cinema & Drafthouse just outside Washington.
The group is billing the film as an “unprecedented documentary film about an outsider who broke the barriers and changed the order of things.” And the trailer features footage of Ms. Fiorina sitting down by herself and with her husband, Frank, for interviews in which she shares details of her life story, including her account of her record as CEO of Hewlett-Packard and her bout with cancer.
“The documentary was filmed by CARLY for America after we launched in the hope Carly would run, and before she actually decided to run for president,” said Katie Hughes, spokesperson for the super PAC.
Mr. Kasich filmed footage for a supporting PAC, New Day for America, which is already using it in an ad that highlighted the former House Budget Committee’s role in producing federal budgets that led to a surplus in the late 1990s.
“It can happen again,” Mr. Kasich says in the 30-second spot, speaking directly into the camera.
Connie Wehrkamp, a spokesperson for the group, said that “is old footage filmed before John Kasich was a candidate.”
“We are careful to comply with all applicable laws and regulations, and we’re confident all of our activities are legal,” Ms. Wehrkamp said.
Rick Hassan, professor of law and political science at the University of California, Irvine, said that the use of the footage “raises very troubling questions.”
“If he were not a candidate or not at least testing the waters for it, why would he film such a commercial?” Mr. Hassan asked, alluding to Mr. Kasich’s ad.
Mr. Bush, meanwhile, was filmed for Right to Rise USA.
Paul Lindsey, spokesperson for the pro-Bush PAC, said “we comply with all FEC rules and regulations” but declined to say when footage from a recent ad — showing Mr. Bush walking in a warehouse with people in hard hats — was shot.
The Fiorina and Kasich camps did not respond to questions about when their footage was shot.
Lawrence M. Noble, of the Campaign Legal Center, which has filed complaints with the FEC against some of the candidates, thinks the campaigns are violating the law.
“We are being asked to suspend disbelief because it doesn’t make any sense,” Mr. Noble said. “This is not a situation where they are claiming this is footage they shot for anything else. This is a situation where he clearly sat down for this ad. The only purpose for this would be for a campaign.”
“It is very hard to see how it is legal, unless you accept the argument that she totally was not thinking about running for office,” he said of Ms. Fiorina’s documentary. “It is kind of like watching a science fiction movie. You have to put aside reality.”
But not every PAC tested the limits.
“We did not,” said Austin Barbour, of Opportunity and Freedom PAC, which backed former Texas Rick Perry, who recently dropped out of the race. “We tried to play it really, really safe,” he said, adding that the group put a lot of faith in the advice of their attorney.
• Seth McLaughlin can be reached at email@example.com.
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