WASHINGTON -- The most important person in the presidential race who is not running for office may be Jeff Larson, the chief of staff at the Republican National Committee.
An under-the-radar figure rarely seen or quoted in the press, Larson, along with RNC Chairman Reince Priebus, has tremendous control over the largest purse in the GOP. The RNC currently has $75.6 million in cash to spend, nearly matching the $88 million that President Barack Obama's campaign has available, and far surpassing Republican nominee Mitt Romney's $50.4 million (he also has a debt obligation of $11 million) and the paltry $7.1 million at play for the Democratic National Committee.
But the RNC also has several strategically significant decisions to make regarding that money, none more so than how it should aid the Romney ticket. Larson, aides say, is the guy responsible for those choices. Should it become clear that Romney is toast, he would be pressured to spend money on down-ticket races, essentially pulling the plug on the presidential campaign. More likely than that, he will have to figure out how to keep Romney nipping at Obama's heels.
"The problem for the candidate is that he cannot directly use much of the money that comes into a joint fundraiser, as the amount over what individuals can give to the presidential campaign has to be sent to the national party committee or participating state party committees," explained Larry Noble, a longtime campaign finance lawyer. "That just makes it all the more important for the campaign that the national party committee spend the money in ways helpful to his candidacy."
Several top campaign finance lawyers helped outline the avenues by which Larson could come to Romney's aid. For starters, the RNC can spend roughly $22 million on full coordination with the candidate, meaning it can pick up the tab for the ads that Romney's campaign orders. An RNC official told The Huffington Post that as of Monday night, that limit had not been reached.
Beyond that, the RNC can oversee other campaign functions. As the committee official noted, it is already picking up the tab for Romney's ground game, paying for staff, calls, mailers, data, polling and voter registration efforts.
These efforts may be helpful, but Romney still lags on this front. Obama currently has 85 offices in Florida to Romney's 47, according to the candidates' websites. Obama has 96 offices in Ohio, meanwhile, compared to Romney's 36.
Republicans have, in the past, tried to overcome such a deficit by burying the opposition with television advertisements. In that regard, the RNC has several options.
"Parties may also spend independently of their nominees without limit," said David Mason, a former commissioner at the Federal Election Commission. "Both major parties have engaged in extensive independent spending on behalf of House and Senate nominees."
But in the past, Mason recalled, there hasn't been much independent spending on behalf of presidential nominees. And in the post Citizens United era, this is the role observers expected super PACs to fill.
Independent expenditures don't qualify for lowest unit rates, which allow candidates to purchase ad slots at a discount -- sometimes as much as 30 percent. In other words, the RNC's dollars won't stretch as far as a candidate's will.
A more significant problem with independent expenditure ads, said Trevor Potter, another former FEC commissioner, is that they "cannot be discussed with Romney as to content or placement." Larson and the RNC can make extremely well-educated guesses about what Romney wants. But they are legally blocked from any discussion.
There is, however, one form of advertising that the RNC can fund that both qualifies for lowest unit rates and can be coordinated with the Romney campaign. They can run what are known as "hybrid" ads, which support both the presidential candidate and name other Republican candidates as well.
"Hybrid ads are an exception [to the $22 million cap] because the campaign contributes, and our state party transfers from the RNC or victory fund can be spent however they want," said the RNC official.
But hybrid ads aren't necessarily a panacea.
"We did some in '04 and the Kerry campaign did some in '04," said a Republican campaign official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss strategy. "In '08, I don’t think you saw a lot at all because the McCain campaign didn't like them."
"The Romney team could coordinate the content and placement of these ads," added Potter, "but ad makers hate them because they blur the message."