President Barack Obama’s campaign and a super-political action committee supporting him are using the same failed Kansas City steel company in television advertisements meant to portray presumed Republican opponent Mitt Romney as a ruthless businessman.
Priorities Action USA bought about $4 million of air time for the 30-second spot through the end of May, according to a person familiar with the ad buy. Like the Obama campaign, the super-PAC highlights the 2001 bankruptcy of GST Steel, which Romney’s Bain Capital LLC took over in 1993.
Federal election law requires that super-PACs operate independently of the candidates they support. Yet U.S. Federal Election Commission rules leave super-PACs and candidates room to develop similar strategies, for example by allowing them to use the same vendors and hire each other’s former employees. The candidates also are allowed to solicit donations for super-PACs.
“Super-PACs are making a total mockery of the anti- coordination rules of the Federal Election Commission,” said Craig Holman, a lobbyist for Public Citizen, which pushes for stricter campaign-finance laws. “These are rules that are easily side-stepped, which throws out the entire notion of campaign-finance limits.”
Donors are limited to $2,500 per candidate for the general- election cycle, while super-PACs may accept unlimited amounts of money from individuals, groups and corporations.
Priorities and the Obama campaign were using different media consultants as of the most recent FEC reports, which are current to the end of March. Bill Burton, co-founder of Priorities, was Obama’s 2008 campaign spokesman and a press secretary in the Obama White House until leaving to create Priorities USA.
The Obama campaign and the super-PAC were synchronous in another way this week: Both developed websites they say show Romney’s real record on business.
Burton and Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt said they didn’t coordinate.
“This line of attack on Romney is obvious,” Burton said, and GST Steel “is a particularly egregious example of Bain pushing a company into bankruptcy.”
‘By the Book’
He said the super-PAC shot the ad months ago and didn’t know the Obama campaign also planned to release a spot featuring GST. He said the super-PAC will soon release ads featuring other companies that didn’t fare well after being taken over by Bain.
LaBolt, in an e-mail, said the campaign follows “all of the coordination rules and laws by the book.”
Like Priorities, many of the candidate-specific super-PACs tap close aides and deploy similar strategies, prompting watchdog groups such as Democracy 21 to call for the U.S. Justice Department to investigate.
In February, Restore Our Future, a super-PAC supportive of Romney, used footage from a 2007 Romney campaign ad for a spot called “Saved.” In both that ad and Romney’s “The Search,” a father explains how Romney and Bain employees helped him look for his missing daughter in New York.
Democracy 21 and the Campaign Legal Center, Washington- based advocacy groups that support stronger campaign-finance laws, asked the FEC to investigate whether the super-PAC’s use of the footage constituted illegal coordination. A spokesman for the super-PAC said the group followed laws in purchasing the archival footage.
Sheila Krumholz at the Washington-based Center for Responsive Politics said that while super-PACs and candidates might be “technically following the rules, it’s a distinction without a difference.”
“The limits on donations to campaigns are in place for a reason, and super-PACs essentially make those limits meaningless,” she said.
Priorities’ GST ad began airing on network television today. Kantar Media’s CMAG, a political ad tracker based in New York, captured it on an NBC affiliate in Norfolk, Virginia. It also will air in Florida, Ohio and Colorado, according to a statement by the super-PAC.
Obama’s two-minute ad on GST is running in Ohio, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Colorado and Iowa.
Size of Buy Unknown
The Obama campaign didn’t disclose the size or duration of its purchase. Jonathan Collegio, a spokesman for American Crossroads, a super-PAC that supports Romney, said the re- election committee’s buy was less than $100,000.
“No wonder they wouldn’t say how much they were spending,” Collegio said in an e-mail.
The Obama ad has yet to appear on broadcast television, according to CMAG.
While the ads feature different former steel workers -- Pat Wells in the super-PAC spot and Joe Soptic and John Wiseman in the campaign ad -- both carry the message that the steel plant sputtered under Bain’s control and filed for bankruptcy in 2001. Romney left Bain in 1999 to head the Olympic Games in Salt Lake City.
“Bain Capital always made money,” Wells says in the Priorities ad. “If we lost, they made money. If we survived, they made money.”
Wells, a St. Louis County, Missouri, resident whose full name is Glen Patrick Wells, also appeared in a two-minute web video posted Jan. 6 by MoveOn.org, a group backing Obama’s re- election. It was viewed more than 56,900 times, according to YouTube.com. In it, he said he worked 34 years in the steel mill.
He told The Washington Post at the time that he voted for Obama’s 2008 Republican opponent, Arizona Senator John McCain, and would probably vote for Obama this time even though “I detest him.”
“Anyone who is willing to put a predatory capitalist in office deserves to get Obama,” he told The Post Jan. 6.
“We’re going to see a lot of similar messaging this election cycle,” said Erika Franklin Fowler, director of the Wesleyan Media Project in Middleton, Connecticut, which tracks and analyzes broadcast political ads. “There’s so much wiggle room for coordination.”
As a counterpoint to the Bain criticism, the Romney campaign yesterday released a web video about Romney’s private- equity investment in Steel Dynamics (STLD:US), an Indiana company. The minute-long web ad doesn’t mention Bain by name.
Responding yesterday to the Obama ad, Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul said in an e-mail, “Mitt Romney helped create more jobs in his private-sector experience and more jobs as governor of Massachusetts than President Obama has for the entire nation.”
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