Carly Fiorina Enjoys Fruits of Super-PAC Labors

Campaigns and super-PACs aren't supposed to coordinate, but the line between them at Fiorina's events is extremely blurry, with the casual attendee not able to notice any gap between the two.

Carly Fiorina greets attendees during the Quad Cities New Ideas Forum in Davenport, Iowa, on Sept. 25, 2015.

Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

As Rotary Club members sat down for lunch Friday, they found glossy flyers with the photo of their guest speaker waiting at their tables in Davenport, Iowa. Workers for the super political action committee backing Carly Fiorina had placed them there before she arrived at the hotel banquet room.

It was the latest example of Fiorina and the super-PAC (Conservative, Authentic, Responsive Leadership For You and For America, known as CARLY for America) pushing the boundaries of campaign finance in the post-Citizens United world. Their actions have drawn criticism from watchdogs who say the super-PAC is providing what's essentially an in-kind contribution in labor and materials to her Republican presidential campaign, while also representing the sort of coordination between the two entities that isn't supposed to take place.

Super-PAC employees were also waiting with Fiorina stickers, sign-up sheets, and campaign-like signs with the fine print listing the group's name at two other stops that the former Hewlett-Packard chief executive made that day in Mississippi River towns in eastern Iowa.

GOP presidential candidate carly fiorina speaks at the quad cities new ideas forum & rotary club of north scott

Literature for Carly Fiorina sits on a table prior to a speech at the Quad Cities New Ideas Forum in Davenport, Iowa, on Sept. 25, 2015.

Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

Fiorina and Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal are the 2016 candidates who have been the most likely to leave many of the details—and expenses—of campaign organizing up to the super-PACs backing them, indirectly utilizing the ability of the groups to raise and spend unlimited sums of money. 

“Super-PACs are no longer limiting their activities to paid advertising, but rather are acting as surrogate campaign organizations, sponsoring candidate appearances, hiring staff in Iowa and other early states, building grass-roots organizations, developing voter contact programs, and conducting research on candidates and policy issues,” said Anthony Corrado, a professor who studies campaign finance at Colby College in Maine.

The advantage for candidates, including those like Fiorina who have had modest early fundraising success, is that they can conserve their own campaign dollars and avoid the fate of former Texas Governor Rick Perry and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, who both dropped out of the race after running out of money.

One disadvantage is that candidates too dependent on super-PACs tend to make appearances only at places where they've received an invitation to speak, rather than at least sometimes building their own events to target key areas or demographic groups. Left unchanged before the balloting, it would also leave in the hands of an outside entity the notoriously difficult job of recruiting and mobilizing supporters to turn out on an often-cold night in Iowa for that state's first-in-the-nation caucuses.

GOP presidential candidate carly fiorina speaks at the quad cities new ideas forum & rotary club of north scott

Carly Fiorina signs an autograph after an appearance in Davenport, Iowa, on Sept. 25, 2015.

Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

In Fiorina's case, all of her appearances Friday in Iowa were events where others made the arrangements and helped turnout the crowd. Besides the Rotary Club, her two other stops were organized by the Quad Cities New Ideas Forum and the Dubuque County Republican Women.

Asked at a news conference whether she'll have enough money to compete in early states like Iowa and whether she's relying too much on a super-PAC for organization and campaign infrastructure ahead of the Feb. 1 caucuses, Fiorina didn't seem eager to discuss the topic. “Yes and no,” she said, before motioning for another question.

Fiorina, who has moved into the top tier of candidates after two strong debate performances, said her campaign is following the rules when she was pressed on the topic. “What you see happening is a super-PAC is organizing people,” she said. “We're not coordinating with them. We're not asking them to. I don't know what they're doing. They don't tell us what they're doing.”

For now, her approach seems to be working. Fiorina spoke to roughly 1,000 people during her Iowa stops. Her first in Davenport attracted roughly 600 people for a mid-morning event, a sizable crowd four months before the caucuses, even if some in the audience were from neighboring Illinois.

The campaign and super-PAC aren't supposed to coordinate their activities, although the line between them at Fiorina's stops on Friday was extremely blurry, with the casual attendee not able to notice any gap between the two. Voters didn’t seem to care.

Mary Rae Bragg, a retired Dubuque newspaper reporter who came out to see Fiorina on Friday, said she's planning to support her and isn't bothered that a super-PAC is doing most of her campaign organizing. “I'd love to see some campaign finance reform, but that's not a fact of life right now and we have to work with the system we've got,” she said.

Mary Kramer, a former Iowa Senate president who likes Fiorina but is backing former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, said that when she's seen organizers working on Fiorina's behalf it has typically been at women-centric events.

“You don't see big rallies where she invites people herself,” said Kramer, a former U.S. ambassador to Barbados who backed Mitt Romney in the 2012 Iowa caucuses. “I don't believe she is at that level of grassroots organization.”

That's just fine with Christopher Rants, a former Iowa House speaker now working as Fiorina's state chairman. “I don't want Carly to speak to people who are already Carly supporters,” he said. “She is just getting introduced to so many people who don't know anything about her.”

Rants said Fiorina would be in Iowa “a lot” this fall, but less than the 10 days a month Walker had pledged prior to dropping out of the race on Sept. 21.

A NBC News/Wall Street Journal national poll released Sunday showed Fiorina with the backing of 11 percent of Republican primary voters, tied for third with Senator Marco Rubio of Florida and behind billionaire Donald Trump and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson.

“She's straight-forward and doesn't mince any words,” said Lolita Baker, a retired federal government worker who attended the event in Davenport and plans to caucus for Fiorina. “She's very prepared.”

Fiorina, an unsuccessful 2010 U.S. Senate candidate in California, is clearly working to keep expenses down. Instead of traveling by motor coach as some candidates do, she moved about eastern Iowa with a small entourage and a mid-sized sport utility vehicle.

Through the end of June, before her debate appearances and rise in state and national polls, Fiorina had raised just $1.7 million, according to Federal Election Commission records. Only four other Republicans in the race at that time had raised less. The super-PAC backing her, meanwhile, had raised just less than $3.5 million through that same date, also well less than many of the outside groups backing her rivals.

“We will have the money we need to compete,” Fiorina told reporters in Davenport. “We will have the organization we need to compete. And we will both have both the money and organization we need to go the long haul.”

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