CPAC Tips: How to Win
Friends and Influence
by Kim Barker | ProPublica
(Feb. 13, 2011)The big Republican names were all at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, D.C., last week: Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, Ron
Paul, Herman Cain, Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry and Sarah Palin.
The three-day conference, known as CPAC and hosted by the
American Conservative Union, drew about 11,000 participants and 1,300
journalists, who crammed into the Marriott's ballroom for the big speeches.
While most attention focused on Republican presidential
hopefuls and other party luminaries, we opted to take a spin around panels and
events devoted to fundraising. They were a window into how money might be
raised this election cycle, through new-fangled super PACs and their even
more opaque nonprofit sidekicks, as well as through more old-fashioned
One conference panel -- "What's Up With Campaign
Finance?" -- featured some of the lawyers who helped win the recent court
decisions, such as Citizens United, that cleared the
way for the new, more free-wheeling campaign-finance landscape.
At one point, moderator and lawyer Dan Backer predicted the
eventual overhaul of the Federal
Election Campaign Act of the 1970s, which he crowed "has been
brutalized and made Swiss cheese by the courts, thanks to the folks on this
At another point, panelist Benjamin Barr, a constitutional
lawyer, joked about the hoopla over Citizens
United and the worry that it would lead to a campaign-finance
"If there's an apocalypse upon us, I suppose we have
the four horsemen of the apocalypse right here," he said, as a few
audience members laughed.
Election lawyer Stephen Hoersting, vice-president and
co-founder of the nonprofit Center
for Competitive Politics, who has recently joined
Backer's firm, told the audience about the various ways for grassroots
groups to be involved in the upcoming election. If they want to be directly
involved in a campaign, they can start a traditional political action
committee, which puts strict limits on how much they can raise or donate.
If activists want to raise and spend unlimited amounts of
money, they can form a super PAC, as long as they don't technically
coordinate with a candidate — and as long as their donors are willing to be
But to have both unlimited and undisclosed donations,
Hoersting noted, activists can form a so-called 501(c) 4, named for the section
of the Internal Revenue Service code on social-welfare nonprofits. They must
convince the IRS that their organization's primary purpose is social welfare,
not politics. And they also must not run afoul of the perpetually
"If you absolutely cannot have any of your donors
disclosed, there's still a way to get an organization up off the ground, by
say, April, to get money into it and to run ads that will influence…the
election, but isn't technically something that the FEC gets its hooks
into," Hoersting told the audience of about 75 people. "New
organizations that don't want to disclose, there is a way—but you have to run
your ads in a certain way."
Also at the panel, Bradley Smith, a former FEC commissioner
and the co-founder and chairman of the Center for Competitive Politics, which
advocates eliminating campaign-finance restrictions, told the room that he
wasn't particularly worried about foreign money coming into U.S. campaigns.
Foreign contributions are illegal in the U.S.
"If the Colombian Chamber of Commerce wants to spend a
little bit of money to run some ads saying, ‘Vote for this guy because he
supports the Colombian-American free-trade pact,' I'm like, ‘Yeah, that sounds
good to me,'" Smith said. "I'm just not frightened that some English
citizens are going to run some ads in the country, and I'm not really terribly
concerned that the Syrians run their ads saying, ‘We need stronger terrorist
organizations,' and that that's going to be just a real winner for anybody. It
doesn't worry me."
Hoersting tripped up the audience by playing a kind of super
PAC quiz game. In doing so, he was highlighting how similar all the groups
sounded. He said he wanted a group — and a name — that actually stood for
"Right now we have Winning Our Future," Hoersting
reminded the crowd, some of whom were so devoted to the conservative
conference, they traveled from across the country. "Whose PAC is Winning
"Mitt Romney," a few suggested. "Gingrich,"
"Gingrich, OK," Hoersting confirmed. "Who's Restore Our Future?"
"Romney," a few said, correctly. "Ron
Paul," one man announced, wrongly.
"OK," Hoersting said, without naming the winner.
(To see which candidate the super PAC supports, just look at the photos on their front page.)
One super PAC was unveiled at the conference,
Hispanicvote.com. About 40 people crammed into a side room for the kick-off
party, which featured a tower of cupcakes and a cash bar that may have been a
fundraising tactic. A can of soda ran $5.
American Crossroads, a super PAC that has been referred to
as the "shadow"
Republican National Committee and hopes to raise $300
million with its nonprofit partner
this election cycle, threw a cocktail party for bloggers, where president
Steven Law made a joke about the group being a "little super PAC."
Here, the bar was open.
The conference, which meandered through the sprawling
lobbies and meeting rooms of the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel, was no place for
so-called RINOs, or Republicans In Name Only. It was a place where Reagan was
invoked like a verb, where there was a party called "Reaganpalooza;"
where booths sold pink tank tops with the black outline of a pistol and the
phrase "I Don't Dial 911;" where The Great American Tea Party board
game asked the question: "Who Says Politics Can't Be Fun?"
Supporters of Gingrich, Romney and Santorum vied for space,
along with a man dressed up in a fat suit and a green T-shirt proclaiming,
"Big Govt Gary." Instead of the Sierra Club, there was the Safari Club, which advocated for
accommodating laws for hunters. There was also the Resourceful Earth, which
promises to fight "for the right to develop the natural resources that
create jobs and prosperity in America."
Bruce Eberle, wearing a Ronald Reagan lapel button for his
panel, "Fundraising Secrets from the Billion $ Man," said many
aspects of persuading donors to give big hadn't changed post-Citizen United.
Fundraisers still have to summon up the nerve to ask for a bit more than is
"Donors actually like to be challenged," he said.
"Make them stretch a little bit."
Eberle has raised money for everyone from Reagan to recent
Republican presidential hopeful Herman Cain. He described how he might ask a
prospective contributor for a big check.
"I would like to ask you, 'Would you make a gift of
$250,000’?" Eberle said to his imaginary donor. "And then, this is
one of the very hardest things...You make the ask, and then you shut up."