Super PACs coming to a city near you

Washington (CNN)A century ago, party bosses ruled cities. Today, super PACs are in charge.

Elections in the nation's cities are increasingly the territory of deep-pocketed donors who are finding that a dollar spent in a low-cost municipal race can easily put an ally in power.
In Philadelphia, where Democratic voters will effectively choose the next mayor on Tuesday, the city's wealthiest are overwhelming its candidates, flushing super PACs with more money than ever before. Three Philadelphia donors with a super PAC will outspend all the other candidates combined by a wide margin, demonstrating just how deeply big money is becoming a part of modern campaigns at every level.
Super PACs are posing nearly identical challenges to operatives and candidates in Philadelphia as they are nationwide, raising concerns about coordination and hypocrisy. From Chicago to to Anchorage, Alaska, elections for City Hall are more and more becoming indistinguishable from elections for the White House: one donor can define a campaign and pluck a winner.
    "When it's all said and done, the money's almost inexhaustible," said Terry Madonna, an independent pollster and a longtime Philadelphia political observer.
    Super PACs, which can accept unlimited donations from individuals and corporations as long as their spending isn't coordinated with the campaign, have moved from ornamental additions to a presidential campaign to an essential part of any serious bid for the presidency. And in this year's mayoral races, the outside spending game is drowning what could be spent by the campaigns themselves.
    "They're not historically subject to the same level of giant spending," said Robert Weissman of Public Citizen, which has studied how groups making independent expenditures can influence downballot races. "It's not been part of the story, by and large, in the United States -- until now."
    Becky Carroll, who ran Chicago Forward, a super PAC supporting Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel in his reelection campaign, defended the groups as giving donors another choice when confronted by city laws that rule out big checks.
    "They're the shiny new object in campaigns today, and they provide new flexibility -- especially in municipalities and states where there's far more stringent control," said Carroll.
    Super PACs in Philadelphia spent six times as much as did the campaigns, which are hamstrung by tight contribution limits of $2,900 for an individual or $11,500 for a political action committee.
    That's given room for three wealthy traders from Philadelphia's suburbs to dominate the election in the City of Brotherly Love. The men who run the Susquehanna International Group spent nearly $7 million to back Anthony Williams, a state senator who shares his patrons' positions on education reform. 97% of the money for the super PAC, American Cities, has come from them.
    And the operatives in Philadelphia are learning that these new spending vehicles have all the same drawbacks that they do at the national level. At least three lessons have flowed from the national oracles to the local rough and tumble.
    For starters: Much like in the race for the White House, no super PAC exists in isolation.
    Williams' opponent, Jim Kenney, is backed by the teachers' unions and labor movement who have set up their own spending groups to counterpunch American Cities. Threatened by a super PAC that supports charter schools, labor created their own super PAC to at least neutralize the spending game.
    They haven't quite succeeded. The pro-Williams group has dwarfed the pro-Kenney group with more than twice as much spending. But Philadelphia is learning a second rule that Senate and presidential candidates came to understand in previous cycles: More money doesn't always mean more votes.
    A Philadelphia Inquirer poll last week showed Kenney with a surprisingly large 27-point lead over Williams despite the mismatched spending arsenals.
    Some race-watchers say Williams has partially been a victim of his own super PACs' weight. American Cities' television spots have focused primarily on the education issues near and dear to their donors -- but not necessarily the paid media assault the Williams campaign would execute if it controlled the budget.
    Sam Katz, who unsuccessfully bid for mayor three times before, said Williams was hurt by not having a super PAC attack and define Kenney -- as the groups seem to relish in doing on the national level. But those same coordination problems trickled down to a mayor's race.
    "It exposed a disconnect between what the advocates were saying about school choice and between what Tony Williams was trying to tell people he was for," Katz explained. "The lack of coordination was very damaging."
    The mixed messages, Katz said, created an issue-less campaign that "bored the crap out of the public."
    One issue though that did break through was, ironically, campaign finance. Much like the presidential hopefuls, Philadelphia's mayoral candidates tried to use campaign finance as a winning issue while taking advantage of the status quo.
    Despite the campaigns depending on an onslaught of outside spending, candidates quarreled over how to change the role of money in politics. Williams and Kenney have sparred with their opponents over how far they would go to require greater transparency from groups that make independent expenditures, such as "dark money" groups that spend money without disclosing their donors.
    That contradiction -- which detractors blast as hypocritical -- mirrors the national conversation over campaign finance. Hillary Clinton has called for a constitutional amendment to rein in the avalanche of outside spending, but this month embraced the super PAC prepared to spend big to put her in the White House. Her Republican opponents field questions in town halls on money's role in politics, all the while courting billionaires at lavish resorts years before a single vote is cast.
    Kenney and Williams have endorsed a ban on dark money, but they have also made sure to note that the donors to their super PACs are disclosed.
    Those social welfare groups may be the new frontier in local elections, some operatives predict. Alaska political strategist Art Hackney formed a super PAC in Anchorage that struggled to gain traction after the donor base grew skittish about attaching their name to their contribution.
    That's the same fear that drives donors to dark money groups nationally and made them the favored vehicle of the moment. Maybe they could have made a difference in Anchorage, too.
    "A lot of the people who were going to fund this mayor's race now understand that they wanted to support this candidate," Hackney said, "and he would have won if they had."