Many of the thousands of attack ads aired on TV channels across Louisiana this last election cycle came from outside groups trying to influence the races, rather than the candidates themselves.
Voters can expect the influence and spending of those super PACs to only grow larger in future elections now that they’ve gotten a foothold in Louisiana politics, as in other states.
Of the more than $30 million in spending documented so far in the governor’s race (final reports remain to be filed), half came from super PACs that poured millions into TV advertising, mail pieces and strategizing to help or hurt individual candidates.
Analysis from the Center for Public Integrity shows those outside groups paid to air more than 20,000 TV spots in the governor’s race, which was won by Democratic state Rep. John Bel Edwards.
“That really is a brave new world here in politics in Louisiana,” Trey Ourso, chairman of Gumbo PAC, which opposed Republican U.S. Sen. David Vitter in the governor’s race, told an audience at the LSU Manship School of Mass Communication during a post-election discussion on the role of political action committees.
Super PACS can raise and spend unlimited sums of money to support or oppose a particular candidate, while donors are limited to giving $5,000 to candidates for a statewide campaign. Super PACs are barred from coordinating with a candidate, however.
Critics worry the no-limits aspect of the PACs gives some ultra-wealthy donors too much influence in individual races, while supporters describe the spending as free speech.
In a twist, Vitter helped usher in the super PAC era for Louisiana elections, and the attacks from those outside groups helped defeat the U.S. senator in the governor’s race.
A pro-Vitter super PAC, the Fund for Louisiana’s Future, challenged a state law that had capped contributions at $100,000 for each four-year election cycle as unconstitutional, and a federal judge threw out the restriction.
The Fund for Louisiana’s Future cited a list of federal court rulings to support its argument, including the 2010 Citizens United decision from the U.S. Supreme Court that stripped away restrictions on contributions.
Joel DiGrado, executive director of the fund, told the LSU audience he believed if the pro-Vitter PAC hadn’t filed the lawsuit, someone else would have. And even without it, he said, “motivated people with money to spend would have found other vehicles” to influence the race.
Ourso agreed: “As walls are erected to keep money out of the political process, people find ways to get the money in.”
The pro-Vitter super PAC ended up being the top spender among outside groups in the governor’s race. It hit Republicans Scott Angelle and Jay Dardenne in the primary with repeated attacks that helped to ensure Vitter secured a spot in the runoff instead of Angelle or Dardenne.
Vitter donated $950,000 from his U.S. Senate campaign account to the PAC, an end-around Louisiana’s prohibitions against transferring dollars from a federal campaign account to a state one. But the super PAC got millions more from a lengthy list of donors.
Other outside groups relied more heavily on individual donors.
The super PAC backing Angelle’s candidacy, Louisiana Rising PAC, got most of its support from wealthy Houston oilman James Flores, who donated more than $2 million.
An independent organization calling itself the Louisiana Water Coalition PAC, which launched the first attacks on Vitter reminding voters of his 2007 prostitution scandal, had one donor: law firm Talbot Carmouche & Marcello. The law firm, which spent at least $1.6 million on the effort against Vitter, has filed lawsuits against oil and gas companies for coastal wetlands damage, lawsuits Vitter opposed.
Gumbo PAC, which spearheaded an “Anybody But Vitter” campaign, benefited most from the support of the Democratic Governors Association. Ourso said the PAC spent $3 million on TV ads alone in the runoff, using $2.25 million from the DGA.
The Republican Governors Association used its own PAC to attack Edwards.
Similar deep-pocketed donors and more high-dollar spending will follow in the 2016 U.S. Senate and U.S. House races.
Melinda Deslatte covers Louisiana politics for The Associated Press. Follow her at @melindadeslatte.