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."
Also on HuffPost:
With A Little Help From My Friends (Joe Cocker)
<strong><a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/05/28/mitt-romney-will-not-repu_n_1551540.html" target="_hplink">(May 28, 2012) --</a></strong> Despite a resurgence of <a href="http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2012/05/25/mitt-romney-s-new-bff-donald-trump.html" target="_hplink">Donald Trump's birther claims</a>, Romney refused to repudiate the billionaire, who has been helping with his 2012 campaign efforts. "You know, I don't agree with all the people who support me ... I need to get 50.1 percent or more and I'm appreciative to have the help of a lot of good people," Romney said. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
Who Let The Dogs Out (Baha Men)
<strong><a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/16/mitt-romney-seamus_n_1429925.html" target="_hplink">(April 16, 2012) -- </a></strong> In an interview with ABC's Diane Sawyer, Romney discussed the political fallout over strapping his dog Seamus to a car roof. He admits that he probably would not do it again. (Handout)
It's The End Of The World As We Know It (R.E.M.)
<strong><a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/04/mitt-romney-medicare-president-obama_n_1403267.html" target="_hplink">WASHINGTON, D.C. (April 4, 2012) --</a></strong> Speaking before the Newspaper Association of America, Romney attacked Barack Obama on his health record, claiming the president "has taken a series of steps that end Medicare as we know it." (Photo: Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)
For The Love Of Money (The O'Jays)
<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/03/14/mitt-romney-i-made-a-lot-of-money_n_1345516.html" target="_hplink"><strong>NEW YORK, N.Y. (March 14, 2012) -- </strong></a> Romney became testy on Fox News while discussing his appeal to lower-income voters. On the same day, Occupy Wall Street protesters staged a demonstration outside Mitt's Waldorf Astoria hotel fundraiser. (Photo: Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images)
People Are Strange (The Doors)
<strong><a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/03/09/mitt-romney-south_n_1334478.html" target="_hplink">PASCAGOULA, Miss. (March 9, 2012) --</a></strong> While on the trail in Alabama and Mississippi, Romney got in touch with his Southern side, learning how to say "y'all" and liking his grits. With those new experiences in hand, he admitted that "strange things are happening to me." (Photo: AP/Evan Vucci)
Pink Cadillac (Bruce Springsteen)
<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/02/24/mitt-romney-cadillac_n_1299740.html" target="_hplink"><strong>DETROIT, Mich. (Feb. 24, 2012) -- </strong></a> While speaking before the Detroit Economic Club at Ford Field, Romney listed not two, not three, but four American-made cars that he and his wife, Ann, owned. Among the vehicles: "a couple of Cadillacs." (Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images)
It's The Hard-Knock Life (Annie & The Orphans)
<strong><a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/02/01/mitt-romney-very-poor_n_1246557.html" target="_hplink">TAMPA, Fla. (Feb. 1, 2012) --</a></strong> In an interview with CNN, Romney noted that he is "not concerned about the very poor," citing the social safety net for that segment of the populace. (Photo: Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
America The Beautiful
<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/31/mitt-romney-america-the-beautiful-_n_1243908.html" target="_hplink"><strong>THE VILLAGES, Fla. (Jan. 31, 2012) --</strong></a> On the eve of Florida's primary, Romney led his supporters in a singing of the patriotic song. (Photo: Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images)
Successful (Drake, Lil Wayne)
<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/19/mitt-romney-tax-returns_n_1217708.html" target="_hplink"> <strong>CHARLESTON, S.C. (Jan. 19, 2012) -- </strong></a> During CNN's GOP debate, Romney refused to commit to disclosing his tax returns, offering no apologies for his success. (Photo: Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images)
Bye Bye Bye ('N Sync)
<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/09/mitt-romney-i-like-being-able-to-fire-people_n_1194115.html" target="_hplink"><strong>NASHUA, N.H. (Jan. 9, 2012) -- </strong></a> In a speech about insurance options, Romney tells audience members, "I like being able to fire people who provide services to me." (Photo:AP/Charles Dharapak)
Don't Know Why (Norah Jones)
<strong><a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/10/28/mitt-romney-embraces-climate-change-denial_n_1063905.html" target="_hplink">PITTSBURGH, Pa. (Oct. 27, 2011) --</a></strong> Back in June 2011, Romney said humans are somewhat tied to climate change. By October, he had reversed course, saying "We don't know what causes climate change." (Photo: Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)