The New York Times
At Convention, Lines Blur for Party and ‘Super PACs’
By Nicholas Confessore
August 31, 2012
TAMPA, Fla. — For more than a year, the 2012 campaign has featured two Republican Parties: the official one of candidates, party leaders and elected lawmakers, and the unofficial one of “super PACs” and other outside groups raising and spending tens of millions of dollars to help the Republicans win in November.
But over four days here, those two parties have all but merged into a unified conservative machine, working inside and outside the system, mixing establishment and grass roots, abiding by campaign laws but also displaying just how flimsy the barriers between them are.
Supporters of Mitt Romney shuttled between briefings and receptions held by outside groups and events staged by his campaign near the site of the Republican National Convention, far less worried than they were a few months ago about the seldom-enforced rules barring coordination of activities between the official and unofficial sides. Top party officials appeared at forums sponsored by the network of tax-exempt groups that have helped them outspend President Obama and the Democrats. And the emerging class of megadonors fueling the shadow party and the official one shed their habitual reticence to be honored at receptions and galas.
In a St. Petersburg penthouse overlooking Tampa Bay, Mel Sembler, an ambassador in the George W. Bush administration who is a Florida finance chairman for Mr. Romney, hosted a reception on Wednesday for Restore Our Future, the super PAC that intends to spend more than $100 million to help Mr. Romney win the White House. The invited speakers included several of Mr. Romney’s top surrogates on the campaign trail: Gov. Nikki R. Haley of South Carolina, Senator John Thune of South Dakota and Representative Jason Chaffetz of Utah.
“All the super PACs are here,” said Carl Forti, who was the political director for Mr. Romney’s 2008 campaign and now holds that position with Restore Our Future. “You’ve got hyper-interested people, you’ve got the major donors of the party here. So it’s a great time for us to talk to them and tell them what our plans are.”
At the InterContinental hotel, the American Action Network — an outside group that intends to spend tens of millions of dollars to help the Republicans keep control of the House — set up an office down the hall from the National Republican Congressional Committee. In a ballroom one floor down, the network hosted speeches by Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, the House whip, and Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming, whose vehement attacks against the 2010 health care law echoed the group’s attack ads.
“I’m not coordinating anything,” Mr. Barrasso said later. “I’m giving the message I’ve been giving since before this thing was passed. I’m happy to go anywhere and talk about what I think is wrong.”
There was David H. Koch, the billionaire industrialist and founder of Americans for Prosperity, dining on New American cuisine at SideBern’s in Tampa with Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin. Mr. Koch, a delegate from New York, stood with his party’s state chairman as Mr. Romney was formally nominated from the convention floor on Tuesday. On Thursday, Mr. Koch was honored at an Americans for Prosperity reception.
There was Karl Rove, adviser to American Crossroads, which will spend at least $300 million this year on the presidential and Senate races, mingling with party officials and conventiongoers, then briefing the group’s donors at a breakfast on Thursday where Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor, had been invited.
There was the casino magnate Sheldon Adelson joining Republican congressmen munching on brisket and pigs in a blanket at an event hosted by the Republican Jewish Coalition. Mr. Adelson, the group’s top donor, has provided millions of dollars for pro-Romney appeals to Jewish voters in Ohio and Florida, both swing states.
Near the Tampa Bay Times Forum, the site of the convention, workers erected tents on Monday for the Liberty Pavilion, an event space for conservative research groups, businesses and activist groups. David Bossie, whose group, Citizens United, brought the federal lawsuit that helped pave the way for super PACs, was preparing to screen documentaries by two of the losing Republican primary candidates, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, and was expecting a visit from Reince Priebus, the Republican Party chairman.
“We have a great venue,” Mr. Bossie said, “and these are their people.”
An air of common purpose and celebration permeated the events, with far less of the careful distancing that marked the rise of super PACs two years ago.
“Sheldon and Miriam Adelson — they gave $500,000 to my super PAC!” boasted Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, the self-help author and television host, who is running for Congress in New Jersey. (The super PAC in question, the Patriot Prosperity Political Action Committee, is in theory an independent entity that happens to support Rabbi Boteach.)
Party officials and donors, some Republicans said, have grown more sophisticated about the rules governing super PAC coordination. Republicans have been eager to benefit from the outside conservative groups from the start of the campaign season, but Mr. Obama’s more recent decision to embrace super PACs — and even to send his own aides on the road to raise cash for Democratic-leaning groups — has made some groups more bold. So has the light touch of the Federal Election Commission, Republican strategists and lawyers said, which in past years would have kept a closer eye on discussions between elected officials and independent spenders.
“Super PACs on both sides of the aisle are more aggressively exercising the latitude that they already had under existing law but had not yet fully exploited,” said Robert Kelner, a prominent Republican election lawyer. “If there’s been any shift, I would say it is more with respect to providing policy briefings either to members or to major donors.”
Mr. Kelner added that he was surprised that federal regulators had taken so little interest in such activities.
“Twenty years ago, there would have been much more aggressive F.E.C. investigations about what was said at those briefings,” he said. “So far we’re not just seeing much interest from F.E.C. enforcers.”
On Wednesday morning, Restore Our Future set up shop at the Vinoy Renaissance resort in St. Petersburg, the same hotel booked by Mr. Romney’s campaign and by the Republican National Committee to house top “bundlers” and donors.
Mr. Forti and his Restore Our Future colleagues — Larry McCarthy, a Republican veteran who created ads for Mr. Romney and now does the same for the super PAC, and Charles Spies, the group’s lawyer and a former Republican National Committee counsel — held forth for two hours to a crowd of current and potential donors in a ballroom not far from the Romney campaign’s donor welcome suite.
Mr. Forti led a PowerPoint presentation and took questions about polls and swing-state politics. Those listening included William F. Hagerty IV, a Tennessee executive and a senior adviser to Mr. Romney’s campaign in that state; William Simmons, a lobbyist who is among Mr. Romney’s top bundlers; and Mark Speers, a medical consulting executive and a friend of Mr. Romney.
“We were looking for a way to contribute in a bigger way,” Mr. Speers said in an interview, adding, “They’re very thoughtful, these PAC guys.”
Several prominent Republican elected officials also attended, reflecting the super PAC’s growing clout in party politics and the presence of the kind of six- and seven-figure givers who have become more important to aspiring candidates than ever before.
“Obviously, these groups have legal restrictions on how they can coordinate and what we can, and you have to lawyer up to make sure you’re not violating any laws,” Senator Marco Rubio of Florida said in an interview after addressing the Restore Our Future donors. “On the other hand, they’re an important voice now in American politics. They’re a vehicle through which we can inform voters of who we are.”
As donors exited, a Restore Our Future aide, mindful of a reporter taking notes outside, encouraged guests to hide their name tags under their jackets. Outside the room, Mr. McCarthy, pressed by one potential donor about coordination rules, gave a quick pep talk about the rules of the road and noted that the group worked closely with American Crossroads, the super PAC co-founded by Mr. Rove, for which Mr. Forti also consults.
“You can’t coordinate with the R.N.C., and you can’t coordinate with Mitt,” Mr. McCarthy explained to the guest. “But we coordinate very closely with Karl.”