Want to run for office? Try test-driving a super Pac.
They're the muscle behind this year's presidential campaigns, although they're legally barred from coordinating with them. But any serious candidate must have a friendly super Pac to secretly raise untold sums from rich benefactors.
It's a role that could evolve in years to come, say political insiders. Don't be surprised if the seeds of a 2016 presidential campaign start with an innocuously named super Pac in 2012. It's not clear how the campaign of the future will begin, but it's a good bet that the country's Frankenstein Federal Election Commission campaign laws will involve a super Pac.
Call it the new exploratory committee. Whereas candidates at the local and federal level have traditionally had to work their way up the ranks of their party to earn enough support for a bid for office, super Pacs -- the campaign cash havens that can raise and spend as much money as they want for anything at all -- are being seen by at least some potential candidates as a shortcut. The idea, according to political consultants around the country, is that if potential candidates were to raise enough money to help another candidate get elected in 2012, that candidate and other influential members in the party would repay the favor later on.
Those who have spoken with people who have expressed interest in starting their own super Pacs for this reason are cautious about giving away names, but a few consultants did confirm that the idea is gaining traction. Then again, the whole idea is to remain somewhat unknown for the time being.
Spencer Kimball, a Republican consultant in Boston, described "rumblings" and "casual conversation" among potential candidates and investors in the private equity and hedge fund worlds. He said one former candidate who ran for federal office in Massachusetts was considering it.
"There are people that I can tell you who are looking to create coalitions," Kimball said, adding that they've thought of using super Pacs as a "hub" for their support. "Then they can come and take credit for it as well."
Bill O'Reilly, a GOP consultant in New York (not the Fox News host), said he has "clients and former clients who are right now talking about" starting super Pacs for the same reason. The Pacs, he said, could replace the public affairs committee as a means to become a political force.
"Now you can do that while raising substantial money," he said. "You want to stay relevant. ... A super Pac is a great way to do it because ... previous donors can give to you."
Several political analysts drew comparisons with the way a leadership Pac works in Congress, in which lawmakers flaunt their power through fundraising rather than passing bills. Leadership Pacs essentially operate as debit accounts for lawmakers who need to impress donors to raise money; their goal is to spend money to support other candidates' campaigns under the assumption that the favor will be returned if necessary.
Robert Maguire, a Pac researcher at the Center for Responsive Politics, said he wasn't surprised to learn that super Pacs could be used in more creative ways to benefit their creators in the long term.
"I start a super Pac in 2012 to show that I can raise money and dole it out not necessarily in the form of contributions but in the form of mailers ... phone calls, ads, things like that," he said. "It's like a shadow leadership Pac."
"It's not about rising up in the ranks of the Republican or Democratic Party," he added. "It's about gaining awareness among people that you know you want to notice you."
To many political observers, the rising power of the super Pac is a signal that money has corrupted the political process on a new level. Every presidential candidate has at least one super Pac raising millions of dollars for them, and their donors are kept secret until rare filing dates.
Even President Obama, who after the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court ruling crusaded against the changing campaign finance law, recently bowed to reality and announced he would ship out his cabinet secretaries to raise money at events hosted by the super Pac supporting him (which was started by two of his former White House aides).
"I'm finding that people who believe they're going to run for a higher office in the next election cycle start spending huge sums of money either through their own campaigns or through IEs," said Allan Hoffenblum, a political consultant in Los Angeles, referring to the acronym for "independent expenditures," the super Pac equivalent in California.
Former GOP candidate Jay Townsend, who blames a cash disparity for his loss to New York Sen. Chuck Schumer in 2010, predicted that super Pac spending in congressional races will have significant impacts because it takes less money to make a difference with fewer voters. That kind of effect could make the forces behind those Pacs recognizable to party leaders.
"If someone had been able to write me a check for 5 or 10 million dollars, we would have had a competitive race and a serious dialogue in New York," he said. "Water runs downhill, and money has found its way into the political process, and every time you try to stop the water from going a certain direction, it will still find its way downhill eventually."