Ohio Gov. John Kasich was so tight with a political action committee last year that he sat down to film ads with them just before he became a candidate.
Now, however, he says he can’t do anything about ads the super PAC is running insulting his opponents in the Republican presidential nomination race.
It’s the latest twist in what’s become a morass of campaign finance laws that the candidates use to their fullest advantage, coordinating when it helps them and claiming shock when their allies cross the line.
“I don’t like that ad,” Mr. Kasich said at a CNN town hall this week, though he said there’s nothing he can do about it since under the law, he can’t communicate with the super PAC. “It’s the craziest system. But I don’t like that.”
The ad is being run by New Day for America, which coordinated with Mr. Kasich last year ahead of his official announcement for office. The new ad calls Donald Trump and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, the other two Republican candidates, “crazy” and touts Mr. Kasich as “stable.”
A spokeswoman for the group said they’re “very comfortable” with their ad strategy.
“New Day For America has a very strict non-coordination policy, and we are careful to follow the letter and spirit of all FEC rules,” said spokeswoman Connie Wehrkamp.
Mr. Kasich is just the latest to take advantage of the campaign rules.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina also cut footage for supportive super PACs in the weeks before they announced their bids for office.
Under federal campaign laws, candidates for office cannot coordinate with super PACs because it would be seen as a circumvention of finance restrictions.
Likewise, even if candidates object to what a supportive PAC is doing, they have no say.
“The super PAC system has so distorted the whole campaign finance field that you’re seeing these very odd situations,” said Lawrence M. Noble, general counsel at the Campaign Legal Center. “The fact that a candidate would say ‘I disagree with what the super PAC is doing’ is not a problem [if] they’re publicly saying it.”
“It gets very odd when you’ve worked with a super PAC prior to your candidacy, which we think, frankly, compromised the independence of the super PAC, and you help give them material that they’ll later use for ads, and then further down the line start saying you disagree with what the super PAC is doing,” Mr. Noble said.
In Mr. Kasich’s situation, he argues that he’s running a positive campaign even as his allies get into the mudslinging.
The same thing happened in 2012, when former House Speaker Newt Gingrich called out former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney for an ad by a pro-Romney group. In one of the debates, Mr. Gingrich said Mr. Romney knew there were falsehoods in his allies’ ad.
“With regards to their ads, I haven’t seen ‘em and as you know, under the law, I can’t direct their ads,” Mr. Romney replied. “If there’s anything in there that’s wrong, I hope they take it out. I hope everything that’s wrong is taken out.”
For his part Mr. Gingrich demanded that Winning Our Future, a super PAC supporting his own candidacy, alter or pull down what he called inaccurate attacks on Mr. Romney.
President Obama, who decried the existence of super PACs, nonetheless used them to the same effect in his 2012 re-election campaign against Mr. Romney.
The pro-Obama super PAC Priorities USA Action unleashed arguably the most savage ad of the cycle. The spot included the story of a former employee at a steel plant that Mr. Romney’s company, Bain Capital, had closed. The man he talked about how his wife died of cancer after he had lost his health insurance.
Some critics said the ad nearly accused Mr. Romney of murder. But even as Mr. Obama denounced super PACs and the role of money in politics in general, his campaign and the White House distanced themselves from the ad.
“We do not control third-party ads,” then-White House press secretary Jay Carney said. “What I’m not going to do is become a judge and assessor of every third-party ad that’s out there.”