The Slatest

Candidates and Their Super PACs Can’t Legally Coordinate. Here’s How They Do Anyway.

Ted Cruz stands on stage while speaking to a crowd gathered at Liberty University to announce his presidential candidacy March 23, 2015, in Lynchburg, Virginia.

Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Under federal electoral law, a political candidate cannot “coordinate” with the super PACs supporting his or her campaign. In theory, that means a presidential hopeful cannot tell these unofficially aligned (wink, wink) groups when, where, and how to spend the millions of dollars they have raised from deep-pocketed donors. Hypothetically, then, Ted Cruz’s campaign would have absolutely no way of telling its network of super PACs that it sure would be nice if it finally spent some of the $38 million its raised to book TV ad time in early nominating states like Iowa and New Hampshire.

In practice, though, Cruz’s campaign can do just that with the help of a willing media partner, in this case Politico:

The super PACs backing Sen. Ted Cruz’s presidential run have yet to reserve any TV time in the early primary states — or anywhere else — despite a combined $38 million war chest that ranks second among presidential contenders only to Jeb Bush’s $103 million operation.

The total absence of ads has created confusion and growing consternation inside the Cruz campaign, which cannot legally communicate with its allied super PACs and has had to watch as its rivals lock in tens of millions of dollars in ads before prices spike, as they typically do as elections near. “I assume they’re waiting so their media buyers make the highest commission,” one Cruz adviser quipped.

Ta-da! Cruz campaign desires are now public information, and the super PACs can act on them as they see fit. As Laura Barnett, a spokeswoman for one Cruz-aligned group, told Politico, reserving ad space was “totally not even on my radar” before she was reached for comment. It is now!

This type of workaround is common on the campaign trail. As the Washington Post’s Philip Bump pointed out over the weekend, Jeb Bush’s campaign appeared to pull a similar stunt just this past week when someone “leaked” a private campaign memo that, conveniently enough, gave the Bush-aligned Right to Rise super PAC a pretty clear idea where the candidate would like to see it spend its money now that Jeb’s rebooting his campaign. (Bush’s prolonged testing-the-waters phase of his campaign at the beginning of this year was another example of the former Florida governor making a mockery of our election laws.)

Blurring the meaning of independent isn’t just reserved for Republicans. Hillary Clinton’s campaign has found a creative way to work directly with the liberal super PAC Correct the Record. The award for the most shameless flouting of the FEC rules, though, probably goes to Carly Fiorina’s friends, who earlier this year changed the name of their super PAC from “Carly for America” to “Conservative, Authentic, Responsive Leadership for You and for America” as not to violate the rule baring an independent group from using a candidate’s name in their own. The super PAC opts for an acronym on its signs and other campaign materials: “CARLY for America.” We’re sure that’s just to save on printing costs.

Read more of Slate’s coverage of the 2016 campaign