HARRISBURG — A Washington-based super PAC that spent millions on behalf of Democratic candidates for the New Jersey Legislature last year plans to provide similar assistance in 2014 to Democrats running for Pennsylvania’s Republican-controlled Legislature.
General Majority PAC recently sued state officials in U.S. District Court in Harrisburg on grounds that Pennsylvania’s election laws unconstitutionally prohibit super PACs. Lawyers for both sides are negotiating a prospective out-of-court settlement allowing such outside groups to make “independent expenditures” to influence the outcome of political campaigns.
On Monday, U.S. District Judge William Caldwell in Harrisburg granted a preliminary injunction sought by General Majority PAC that temporarily halts enforcement of a law barring corporations and unions from contributing to committees that do not contribute to or coordinate with candidates or political party committees. The state did not oppose the request.
General Majority PAC contends that Pennsylvania’s law would require it to register as a regular state PAC, exposing it to potential criminal prosecution if it solicited or accepted money from corporate or union donors.
“Pennsylvania, like many states, didn’t provide for super PACs and didn’t update their law,” said Marc Elias, one of the group’s attorneys, referring to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision and other federal rulings that have significantly eased restrictions on campaign financing. “We look forward to a prompt resolution.”
Super PACs can raise and spend unlimited funds to help candidates, but cannot coordinate expenditures or strategy with a campaign or contribute to a candidate. Unlike a conventional political action committee, they can solicit and accept contributions from corporations, unions and wealthy individuals.
General Majority PAC is headed by Susan McCue, a former chief of staff to U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. Philadelphia lawyer Mark Aronchick, a nationally prominent Democratic Party fundraiser, is the lead attorney in the Pennsylvania lawsuit.
In New Jersey, the super PAC’s first foray into a state legislative campaign, it went by a different name — the Fund for Jobs, Growth & Security. It spent $8.2 million, according to reports on file at New Jersey’s Election Law Enforcement Commission, on activities that included airing TV ads attacking the Republican challengers of certain Democratic incumbents.
Ultimately, the Democrats maintained their majorities in both houses even as voters also re-elected Republican Gov. Chris Christie.
Jonathan Levy, executive director of super PAC, said it deserves part of the credit for the election results, although one New Jersey pollster said he considered the effect of the group’s efforts a wash.
The Democrats “knew they had a fight on their hands even before the PAC got involved,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute. “I think the outcome would have been exactly the same” without it.
Levy declined to discuss how much it might spend in Pennsylvania, where Republicans hold majorities of 111-92 in the House and 26-23 in the Senate. He also declined to say whether General Majority PAC might get involved in other state legislative battles this year.
Rep. Tim Briggs, chairman of the House Democratic Campaign Committee, said more than a dozen House Republicans have said they will retire this year and that “an open seat is high on our list of what we’re going to target.”
Briggs noted that the committee raised $7 million for House Democratic candidates during the 2009-2010 cycle, when Democrats were last in the majority.
If the super PAC matches the $8 million it raised in New Jersey, “that would double the effort,” he said. “That would be meaningful.”