Super-PACs a new tool in trade groups’ 2012 election arsenal

Several heavy-hitting trade groups that have millions of dollars in their political action committees (PACs) have armed themselves with super-PACs ahead of the 2012 election.

Environmental groups, trade associations and unions have set up their own version of the freewheeling political groups, which can raise and spend unlimited funds independently supporting or opposing political candidates. 

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Many of the super-PACs have reported having little money, or none at all, but the low level of activity doesn’t mean the accounts will remain dormant through Election Day. Representatives of the groups say they are keeping all options on the table as election season heats up. 

The super-PAC is “another tool we needed to be able to use to elect pro-environment candidates,” said Mike Palamuso of the League of Conservation Voters (LCV). 

So far this election cycle, the League’s super-PAC has more than $262,000 in cash on hand, though it hasn’t spent a dime on independent expenditures, according to Federal Election Commission (FEC) records. The environmental group’s traditional PAC, on the other hand, has $429,000 in cash on hand and has contributed almost $200,000 to political candidates and committees.

Palamuso said LCV, which was one of the first groups to create a super-PAC, plans to use the committee “in the weeks and months ahead” to “run some hard-hitting ads and send direct mail” in “a handful of Senate races.”

“Unlike other groups, we’re not only a super-PAC. We’re a 501(c)4 organization; we have a traditional PAC,” Palamuso said. “Where our attention is right now is on the current legislative fight, but we fully expect to use the super-PAC and engage in the electoral arena this year.”

Unions, which are traditionally aligned with Democrats, have also armed themselves with the new spending groups.

Tim Schlittner, a spokesman for the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW), said the labor group set up its super-PAC to reach out to voters in Wisconsin during the standoff last year over public workers’ collective bargaining rights.

“The UFCW initially set up a super-PAC to assist in our outreach to voters in Wisconsin during the heat of the battle there. We will continue to use all of our political resources, whether in the super-PAC or general PAC, to help elect pro-worker candidates to office, defeat those who would do us harm and ensure workers’ rights are protected and expanded, not stripped,” Schlittner said.

The UFCW’s super-PAC has more than $21,000 in cash on hand and has spent nothing on independent expenditures so far, according to FEC records. That pales in comparison to the union’s PAC, which has more than $3.9 million in cash on hand and has given more than $886,000 in donations to political candidates and committees.

Some groups with super-PACs are taking a wait-and-see approach. 

“Given that it’s still early in the year, we’re continuing to assess the landscape and determining how best to allocate resources,” said Michael Cole-Schwartz of the Human Rights Campaign, which has registered a super-PAC.

“We’ve established the super-PAC so we’ll have the most flexibility this cycle, but no decisions have been made about how or when we’ll use it,” he said.

The super-PAC of the gay-rights group has zero dollars in cash on hand and has not spent on expenditures. The group’s PAC continues to be active, however, with more than $200,000 in cash on hand and contributions of more than $281,000 to candidates and political committees.

Other groups said the election is too far away to make a decision on whether to deploy their super-PAC.

“It’s still early in the election cycle, and how the fund will be used is still to be determined,” said Sara Wiskerchen, a spokeswoman for the National Association of Realtors.

The Realtors have a super-PAC, but it has done little so far, having more than $2,700 in cash on hand while spending nothing on independent expenditures. In contrast, the trade group’s PAC has more than $3.8 million in cash on hand and has given more than $2.1 million to candidates and political committees.

While these groups’ super-PACs have done little so far, that could change overnight. As the GOP presidential race has shown, one multimillion-dollar donation can immediately transform a super-PAC into a big-time election player.

Trevor Potter, president and general counsel of the Campaign Legal Center, said the interest groups might be “holding their powder dry.”

“A super-PAC, which is going to make independent expenditures specifically to elect or defeat a candidate, probably doesn’t need to make those expenditures until maybe September, October when they actually have candidates they want to help elect or defeat,” said Potter, a former FEC chairman who has helped with comedian Stephen Colbert’s super-PAC. 

But not all interest groups are shying away from super-PAC spending. The Club for Growth’s super-PAC has more than $2.8 million in cash on hand and has spent more than $573,000 on independent expenditures. Other well-known Washington names, including EMILY’s List and Planned Parenthood, are also pulling in cash for their super-PACs. 

Some interest groups’ hesitancy to go full-bore with super-PACs might be because they don’t fit in with the groups’ traditional efforts to gain access and influence with lawmakers.

“They have regular PACs that are allowed to contribute to candidates. Those are often used as part of their lobbying. They’re a tool to get access to candidates, to go to PAC events, things like that, with members of Congress. So logically they’re going to be spending that money through the whole cycle,” Potter said.

The Credit Union National Association (CUNA) says it is happy with its traditional PAC since it is still the only way to contribute directly to candidates.

“It’s still one of the main ways that we can contribute to campaigns and the only way we can contribute directly. Candidates are more and more desperate to have their own money to control their own messages,” said Richard Gose, CUNA’s senior vice president of political affairs.

The trade group has no plans to join the super-PAC throng. Instead, CUNA sends its “positive endorsements” via mail to its 93 million members who use credit unions across the country, said Trey Hawkins, the trade group’s vice president of political affairs.

CUNA’s PAC has more than $723,000 in cash on hand and has contributed more than $1.5 million to candidates and political committees. Despite the PAC’s size, Hawkins said there aren’t many big donors among the group’s members: The average donation to the PAC is $64.

“We haven’t yet identified anyone that could write a million-dollar check,” Hawkins joked.