WASHINGTON — Daniel Innis, a former business school dean running a long-shot campaign for the House in New Hampshire, faced a big financial disadvantage until a wealthy friend put hundreds of thousands of dollars into a super PAC backing his candidacy.
A similar assist from a billionaire hedge fund chief helped Lee Zeldin, a state senator from New York, secure the GOP nomination for a Long Island congressional seat.
Both men hit upon the must-have ingredient in this year’s midterm elections: Along with a driven campaign manager and a sophisticated social-media strategy, candidates need a rich friend or relative.
For the first time, the kinds of super PACs that became prominent in the 2012 presidential campaign also are a basic requirement in competitive, down-ballot House races.
As one of their first to-do items, congressional hopefuls are asked to identify wealthy family members, friends or business associates willing to spend on their candidacies. As a result, deep-pocketed political patrons and special interests have a greater ability to influence the outcome of individual races with a relatively modest investment of funds.
“It is the norm this cycle,” said Saul Anuzis, a former Michigan Republican Party chairman, noting that he told every potential candidate to identify generous friends and family members. “Anybody giving advice to campaigns that did not recommend super PACs as part of the strategy mix would be committing political malpractice.”
Super PACs, established after a series of court decisions in 2010 paved the way for unlimited corporate and union spending, can raise and spend freely but are not permitted to coordinate strategy with candidates. When super PACs first arrived on the scene, campaigns were careful to steer clear of them. But candidates and groups are increasingly pushing the boundaries of coordination. Newly compiled data show the impact of super PACs created for the sole purpose of helping specific candidates.
So far this year, at least 64 such groups have poured more than $21 million into television ads, mailers and robo-calls to help their candidates, according to campaign finance data collected by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. That means such groups are on track to far exceed the nearly $31 million spent in the 2012 elections by 42 super PACs focused on congressional candidates, according to data analyzed by the advocacy group Public Citizen.
This year’s total represents about a quarter of the overall spending by super PACs, including such groups as the pro-GOP American Crossroads that were created to target multiple races nationwide.
The trend is illustrated by the nascent candidacy of Innis, the former University of New Hampshire business school dean running in a GOP primary for the right to face Rep. Carol Shea-Porter, D, in November.
Innis’s benefactor is Peter T. Paul, a former mortgage banker based in California, who had given occasionally to GOP candidates in the past but had never written a check to a super PAC — until this year’s midterm campaigns.
Now Paul is planning on putting as much as $500,000 into New Hampshire Priorities, a super PAC he set up this year to back Innis, who did not respond to requests for comment.
The two got to know each other when Paul, a UNH alum, donated $25 million to endow the business school that bears his name.
Paul is more than just a donor — he approved the hiring of the super PAC’s strategist, a former aide to Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., and weighs in on strategy.
“I’m not driving the bus,” he said. “I may have paid for the bus and hired the driver and suggested where we want to go.”
Cozy relations between a candidate and super PAC patrons are now commonplace, both in House and Senate races.
When Mike Turner, a 27-year-old state representative in Oklahoma, ran a long-shot House campaign this year, he got a big assist close to home: his mother and grandfather put $135,000 into a super PAC backing his candidacy.
In Nebraska, Senate candidate Ben Sasse’s 87-year-old great-uncle Rupert Dunklau was the sole donor to a super PAC that took aim at his primary opponent, helping Sasse secure the nomination to replace retiring Sen. Mike Johanns.
“I’m his great-uncle, and that’s the reason,” Dunklau said of why he made the $100,000 donation to the group, called Ensuring a Conservative Nebraska. “He’s one of the most intelligent individuals I’ve ever run into in my life.”
Dunklau acknowledged that Sasse introduced him to the strategists running the group, as previously reported by the Omaha World-Herald. Sasse’s campaign did not respond to requests for comment.
Zeldin, the Republican New York state senator from Long Island challenging U.S. Rep. Timothy Bishop, D-N.Y., paid an early visit to the expansive estate of Robert Mercer, the co-chief executive of the hedge fund Renaissance Technologies.
Zeldin said supporters had urged him to meet Mercer, who has given lavishly to super PACs across the country — including pouring $1 million into a group in 2012 that backed Bishop’s GOP opponent.
“He is someone who has very strong convictions with regard to putting America back on a path to fiscal solvency and … about having leaders of strength willing to make the tough decisions,” Zeldin said.
Later, Mercer contributed $200,000 to a super PAC called U.S. Jobs Council, which devoted its funds to helping Zeldin win the GOP primary last month.
Mercer declined to comment.
The expansion of such tailored super PACs is driven in part by donors who are seeking ways to pinpoint their political investments after the 2012 elections, on which national super PACs such as American Crossroads spent hundreds of millions of dollars across many races, with little return.
“Some of these single-candidate super PACs have aggressively used that experience to say, ‘Hey, give to us — we’re not spending across the country, we’re not spread too thin,’ ” said Washington campaign finance lawyer Michael Toner.
Their growing profile has alarmed campaign finance watchdogs and veteran operatives alike.
Lisa Gilbert, director of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch, said the groups contribute to creating an unfair playing field by giving “candidates with that assistance a leg up that is undeniable, and puts those without it at a severe disadvantage.”
Longtime Republican donor Rick Hohlt, a Washington lobbyist who has been active in the top tier of GOP campaigns since Ronald Reagan ran for president, described the campaign finance world in 2014 as having a “dangerous, Wild West atmosphere.”
Anuzis, the former Michigan GOP chairman, has a different view. He said super PACs are a “great equalizer” because they allow individuals a chance to participate directly in politics.
“I tell donors, ‘You can do it your way. If you have $500,000 to a million, you can affect a Senate race. If someone can put together $100,000 or $200,000 you can affect a House race.”
Washington Post researcher Alice Crites contributed to this report.