How cozy can candidates be with political groups?

Rachel Baye

The criminal investigation into Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s collaboration with independent political groups has been making national headlines, but in certain other states, such a relationship would barely raise an eyebrow.

Prosecutors in multiple counties have been investigating whether Walker, a potential GOP presidential candidate, illegally coordinated with a slew of independent conservative nonprofits leading up to 2011 and 2012 recall elections.

Laws vary widely when it comes to how tight candidates can be with political backers — what’s OK in one state may not be OK in another.  In Florida and Michigan, for example, candidates and supposedly independent groups seemingly work hand in hand, while Connecticut and Minnesota recently affirmed that such groups must keep their distance.

Meanwhile, federal office seekers operate under an entirely different set of rules that even regulators can’t agree on.

As a result, candidates stand to benefit from vast pots of money beyond what they can raise for their own campaigns. Contribution limits, meant to curb the influence of donors, can become almost meaningless as special interests spend millions of dollars to benefit a campaign.

Related: Democratic Governors Association ad, titled 'Mark Schauer for Michigan'

Coordination in Michigan

Take a recent ad in Michigan, where a gubernatorial hopeful speaks directly into the camera as he walks through what appears to be a manufacturing plant.

“I’m Mark Schauer, and there’s a lot we can do to make Michigan’s economy better,” the Democratic candidate says. “Tell Gov. [Rick] Snyder his economic policies work for the wealthy, but not for the rest of Michigan.”

It appears to be a typical campaign ad. But it’s paid for by the Democratic Governors Association (DGA), a Washington, D.C.-based political group that can accept unlimited donations from labor unions, corporations and wealthy individuals.

Like the federal law, Michigan bans corporations and unions from giving directly to candidates. However, the state’s flexible coordination laws allow Schauer to take advantage of the DGA’s deep-pocketed corporate and union donors.

Related: Nebraska State Central Committee ad for Ben Nelson

There’s more to this story. Click here to read the rest at the Center for Public Integrity.

This story is part of Consider the Source. Seeking to ‘out’ shadowy political organizations flourishing in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling. Click here to read more stories in this investigation.

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Copyright 2014 The Center for Public Integrity. This story was published by The Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit, nonpartisan investigative news organization in Washington, D.C.