NPR logo Can A SuperPAC Rescue Rick Perry?

Can A SuperPAC Rescue Rick Perry?

Former Texas Gov. and Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry's campaign has stopped paying some of its staff as funds are drying up. Spencer Platt/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Former Texas Gov. and Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry's campaign has stopped paying some of its staff as funds are drying up.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

It was hard not to notice Rick Perry's plight last month, when the Republican presidential campaigns filed their financial disclosures. The former Texas governor's total take so far is $1.1 million. Cash on hand as of June 30 was $884,000. For comparison, fellow Texan Sen. Ted Cruz's campaign raised $14.3 million, with $8.5 million on hand.

But even as Perry For President Inc. is cutting its payroll, his people have a rescue plan. If it works, it's likely to set a new standard for how presidential campaigns are financed.

The rescuers are superPACs, political committees that promote candidates ostensibly without coordinating the messages. Donors can give unlimited amounts to superPACs, but are restricted by anti-corruption laws from giving candidates more than $2,700 per election.

Perry is backed by three superPACs: Opportunity and Freedom PAC, and Opportunity and Freedom PACs I and II. They're not the most affluent superPACs in the presidential race — Right To Rise USA, supporting former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, reported raising $103 million — but the Perry superPACs collectively had socked away $11.9 million as of June 30.

SuperPACs traditionally — if there is a tradition for entities that didn't exist before 2010 — have concentrated their spending on TV, especially attack ads. Now, the Opportunity and Freedom PACs are expanding their role.

Austin Barbour, senior adviser to the Perry superPACs, said they're already putting staff on the ground in Iowa. They'll do media, of course — even positive, pro-Perry ads, the kind that the campaign committee would normally do — and much of the other work usually handled by the candidate's own committee.

"I guess this is maybe a new thing in presidential superPACs," Barbour said. And what will Perry's almost-broke campaign committee do? Barbour said candidate travel and "earned media" — that is, news coverage of the candidate himself.

This off-loading of costly campaign functions was already a hot idea for the 2016 campaign. Bush and Right To Rise USA are primed to split responsibilities this way, as are other candidates.

But with Perry's campaign strapped for cash, it appears he'll be the first to do it this way. Barbour said Perry's financial prospects might brighten after the Iowa caucuses in February — that finishing in the top three "gets a lot of money off the fence."

There is one obstacle to this strategy: a law that bars a candidate from coordinating with an outside group regarding the campaign's "plans, projects, activities or needs." In 2012, the first presidential race with superPACs, Republican Mitt Romney even exclaimed that if coordination occurred, "we go to the big house."

But enforcement concerns are fading, as the Federal Election Commission has avoided tackling big issues such as coordination.

Perry's operation is "not going to be able to pull this off without coordinating," said Larry Noble, senior counsel at the pro-regulation Campaign Legal Center and former general counsel to the FEC. "If they do it and succeed, it'll be the new benchmark."

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