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In Virginia Governor's Race, Super PAC-Candidate Coordination Can Occur Legally

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VIRGINIA GOVERNORS RACE
Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli leaves federal court in Richmond, Va., on May 10, 2011. (AP Photo/Steve Helber) | AP

WASHINGTON -- The general understanding of super PACs and other outside groups with political goals is that they must operate independently of candidates and that they are legally barred from most coordination with candidates or political parties.

As Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney famously put it in declining to discourage a pro-Romney group's ads, "Super PACs have to be entirely separate from a campaign and a candidate. I'm not allowed to communicate with a super PAC in any way, shape or form. If we coordinate in any way whatsoever, we go to the big house."

Beware, Virginia. While federal limits restrict these groups in federal elections, they don't apply to the state's marquee gubernatorial contest this year.

In the Virginia governor's race pitting Republican state Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli against Democratic businessman Terry McAuliffe, there will be no restriction on coordination between candidates and outside groups like super PACs or "dark money" nonprofits. The only rules that do exist dictate how such coordination will be reported.

Although this is not a new phenomenon created by the Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United ruling, but rather a product of Virginia's longstanding campaign laws, the proliferation of outside groups since the Citizens United ruling means there are now far more groups eager to jump in the Virginia governor's race than ever before.

One super PAC, the liberal American Bridge 21st Century, has already entered the contest against Cuccinelli with online ads, on-the-ground trackers and an expanding opposition research book on the Republican candidate that could prove useful to the McAuliffe campaign.

Under Virginia's very loose campaign finance laws, candidates are allowed to accept unlimited contributions from practically any source, including corporations and unions. Only three other states set no contribution or source restrictions: Missouri, Oregon and Utah.

The lack of contribution and source limits is the main reason that outside groups will be able to coordinate with campaigns in the gubernatorial race. Any coordinated expenditure can simply be reported by the candidate as an in-kind contribution.

"In states that don't have contribution limits, they don't regulate coordination typically," said Paul S. Ryan, a lawyer at the campaign finance watchdog Campaign Legal Center.

in 2009, according to records maintained by the Virginia Public Access Project, Bob McDonnell, then the Republican candidate for governor, received a $972,877 in-kind contribution from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce for "media services" and a $24,544 contribution from the conservative GOPAC in coordinated advertising.

On the other side, Democratic candidate Creigh Deeds received $43,924 in in-kind contributions from NARAL Pro-Choice America in the form of direct mail. A group called Moving Virginia Forward contributed $24,000 in staff time and office space to help Deeds' campaign.

McDonnell won.

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