Super PACs Can’t Coordinate with Candidates — Here’s What Happened When One Did

A stack of $100 bills on top of an American flag

Voters have a right to know who’s spending money to influence elections. That’s why federal campaign finance laws require people running for public office to declare their candidacy and file reports that disclose who their donors are and how they spend campaign funds, including political contributions.  

Federal law also prohibits super PACs — organizations that are allowed to raise unlimited amounts of money from corporations and individuals — from donating to candidates and their campaigns or coordinating with them. These measures are crucial to ensuring that voters are informed about who candidates are beholden to, and to prevent a small group of wealthy special interests from commandeering elections.  

Starting in 2017, then-Governor of Florida, Rick Scott, and his nascent Senate campaign engaged in a blatant scheme to circumvent these important anti-corruption and pro-transparency laws. Scott illegally delayed declaring his candidacy with the Federal Election Commission (FEC) to avoid triggering federal requirements, while co-opting New Republican, a super PAC, to raise millions of dollars outside the legal limitations, which would later be spent supporting his campaign.  

In May 2017, when Scott became Chair of New Republican, the super PAC had made no independent expenditures since 2014 and had not received a contribution in over a year. Scott quickly staffed the super PAC with his political allies, declared a new mission (to support then-President Trump’s policies while rebranding the Republican Party), and ramped up fundraising operations, raising over a million dollars by the end of 2017 and a further $1.2 million in the first quarter of 2018.  

Yet the super PAC did not spend any of that money on its purported new mission. Indeed, while Scott was Chair, New Republican continued to make no independent expenditures in support of any candidates, and it aired no issue ads. That all changed when Scott announced his Senate campaign in April 2018.  

The day of Scott’s announcement, New Republican rolled out a new website — prepared and paid for in advance — and a new objective: electing Rick Scott. This time New Republican meant it, spending over $29 million on that objective in the 2018 election, almost all either in support of Scott or in opposition to Sen. Bill Nelson, his Democratic rival. 

In August 2021, Campaign Legal Center Action (CLCA) sued the FEC on behalf of End Citizens United (ECU), after the Commission dismissed ECU’s administrative complaints alleging inappropriate coordination between Scott and New Republican, among other campaign finance violations. The district court, however, affirmed the FEC’s dismissals of ECU’s complaints. In so doing, the district court both misinterpreted the law and mischaracterized the FEC’s actions.  

Consequently, CLCA ­­­­— on behalf of ECU — has appealed the district court decision to the D.C. Circuit, asking the Circuit Court to correct the district court’s obvious errors.   

Campaign finance laws are in place to prevent schemes like this one that hide information from voters about which wealthy special interests are spending big money to secretly influence our votes and our government. It’s time for the Court to step in and make clear that co-opting a super PAC isn’t a clever way of raising money — it’s a violation of the law. 

Allison is a Legal Fellow at CLC.