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Conservative PACs Defend Spending Habits After Scathing Report

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Conservative political action committees are spending huge sums of money, but they’re not spending it the way you might think.

Ten conservative political action funds spent a combined $54 million in donations in 2014, but only $3.6 million of that money technically went directly to a candidate, according to an exhaustive 170-page research report produced and analyzed at Right Wing News. None of those PACs — which tell donors they are committed to changing the political landscape — directed more than 10 percent of the money they spent in 2014 either to a candidate or to ads for a specific candidate.

The vast majority of the money went elsewhere — to get-out-the-vote campaigns, bus tours, rallies, research, lobbyists and other unspecified ends. Only 4 percent of the $12.9 million The National Draft Ben Carson For President PAC spent went to ads for a specific candidate or to a campaign. And the $500,000 that did go to a candidate didn’t even go to Ben Carson.

A professional researcher contracted by Right Wing News compiled the data based on the percentage of money 17 conservative PACs spent that was listed as a direct contribution to a campaign or as an independent expenditure, which is money spent on an ad that expressly advocates the election or defeat of a specific candidate.

Conservative PACs are repeatedly criticized for the way they spend donors money, and John Hawkins of Right Wing News got to the bottom of it. (RELATED: Tea Party Groups Are Making And Spending Millions, But Not On Candidates)

“This is how I imagine it all starts,” Hawkins wrote in a PJ Media column in the days after he published his findings. “You have an activist busting his behind to help conservatives and he thinks, ‘Wow, just think of what I could accomplish if I were able to do this full time!’ Then, he manages to break the shackles of his day job and becomes a full-time activist running his own PAC. He’s living the dream! However, at that moment, he starts to realize that activism is now a job and his house payment, groceries and kids’ education all depend on it.”

Hawkins’ report diagrams how the limited legal reach of the FEC, coupled with no other oversight and a culture of big-money PAC life, leads idealistic activists with the best initial intentions down a path where activism gets looked at “as nothing more than another for-profit business.”

He did, on the other hand, find a few PACs that spend a large portion of funds directly on candidates (either through direct contributions or independent expenditures). Club For Growth directed 88 percent of its money directly to candidates in 2014. But others spent comparatively tiny percentages directly on candidates.

The PACs don’t always back a certain candidate or party, but they all have a general mission statement of changing the political landscape, creating conversations around issues, and raising awareness in particular demographics. SarahPAC spent only $205,000 of $3.1 million directly on candidates. The Madison Project spent about $300,000 of $5.2 million directly on candidates. Republicans for Immigration Reform didn’t direct any of the $306,000 it spent directly on candidates.

Direct contributions are straightforward, but the independent expenditure figures are misleading. Money spent to organize volunteers who go door to door, or on an issue-based ad, or to organize a rally for a specific candidate does not count as an independent expenditure, according to federal law.

“To say we’re not spending money on candidates — that’s just not correct,” Tea Party Express spokesman Taylor Budowich told The Daily Caller News Foundation. “You could make the argument that some groups out there don’t do anything, but that’s solved through a quick Google search — if you type in Tea Party Express in any election, you’ll find out what we’ve done.”

Tea Party Express has hosted 500 rallies and 10 national tours and the first presidential debate by a PAC, he said. It relies on small donations — an average of $35 — instead of massive checks from big donors, so it has to spend a bigger percentage on direct mail campaigns (of questionable effectiveness) and other ways of finding donors. But he said Tea Party Express is “extremely successful” at organizing, engaging, and educating the grassroots, an assertion which is incredibly difficult to quantify.

Adam Brandon, executive vice president of Freedom Works, made a similar case, and a similar appeal to “grassroots.”

“The independent expenditure is the tip of the spear,” he told TheDCNF. “We do a grassroots model. A lot of the work that you do is not an independent expenditure.”

But Freedom Works directed 42 percent of the money it spent in 2014 directly to candidates, while Tea Party Express directed just 5 percent directly to candidates.

Brandon acknowledged some groups take advantage of donors and called it “a big problem,” but defended groups he’s worked with, such as the Conservative Senate Fund — which spent 22 percent directly on candidates. “This is consumer buyer beware,” he said. “Make sure you do your research on who you’re giving money.”

Freedom Works publishes an annual revenue report, and has been awarded for sound fiscal management.

Tea Party Army didn’t direct a single penny of the money it spent in 2014 directly to a candidate via direct contributions or independent expenditures. But the PAC has created 190 “issue-based campaigns” since it began in 2012, a spokesperson for the PAC explained to TheDCNF.

A list of every campaign and what it costs is posted on the PAC’s website. For example, a donor can donate $15 for the express purpose of faxing a message to every FCC commissioner and every House Energy and Commerce Committee Member urging them not to regulate the Internet.

But Right Wing News also pointed out ways PACs can obscure how they spend donor money. The report found many of the PACs make payments to vendors that are owned by members of the PAC, which is clearly a conflict of interest. They have to disclose how much they pay a vendor, but they obviously aren’t responsible for auditing how efficiently that vendor provides its service.

Tea Party Patriots spokesman Kevin Broughton told The DCNF the idea that people create PACs so they can enrich their consultant friends “may be a nice, sexy narrative,” but does not apply to Tea Party Patriots.

He hedged a bit though, highlighting that 2014 was the first cycle for his PAC. “There’s going to be a learning curve, frankly, and one of the things we’re doing now is going back and figuring out ways we can be more efficient.”

Broughton’s PAC directed 10 percent of the money it spent directly to candidates.

He too pointed out the higher cost of soliciting many small donations versus collecting donations from rich donors, the oft-touted “grassroots” method, as well as the strict definition of what counts as spending directly on a candidate.

“I think the stats are skewed,” he concluded.

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