Update, Sept. 16: This article has been updated to clarify the FEC’s rules about political committee names.
Supporters of Republican Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., have launched “Rand PAC 2016.” But because the super PAC uses the potential presidential candidate’s first name, this action may violate federal law.
Three Hillary Clinton-themed super PACs established earlier this year could also find themselves in the same situation. Since, however, the former secretary of state is not officially a candidate for president or any other federal office, they are on safe ground — for now anyway.
Paul, on the other hand, has raised more than $600,000 for his 2016 re-election to the U.S. Senate, including $457,000 during the first quarter of 2013, according to Federal Election Commission filings.
Federal law, in most cases, only permits political committees authorized by a candidate to use that candidate’s name — which super PACs, by definition, are not.
The regulations, though, are unclear about whether the use of a partial name would trigger a change.
This would be “a good area for the FEC to clarify its own rules,” Paul S. Ryan, an attorney at the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center, told the Center for Public Integrity.
An FEC spokesman directed questions to the agency’s chairman and vice chairman, who could not immediately be reached for comment.
The FEC typically sends a letter to a super PAC if it uses a candidate’s name. For example, during the 2012 GOP presidential primaries, the super PAC “Americans for Rick Perry” ran afoul of the rule and changed its name to “Restoring Prosperity Fund.”
Brandon Edwards — the 27-year-old, self-described libertarian from California who is the chairman of the newly created Rand PAC 2016 — said that if his group were asked to change its name by the FEC, “that would be no problem.”
Edwards said his group does not want to be seen as “leaching off” Paul’s name.
“That’s definitely not the goal of this,” he added. “The goal is to become active with the community, find other like-minded people and help spread the message of liberty.”
Another pro-Paul group may face a similar predicament. It christened itself the “Stand with Rand PAC” when it registered in March as a hybrid super PAC.
A hybrid super PAC can operate one bank account fueled by limited contributions to dole out money to candidates — plus a second account funded by unlimited donations that are used to produce political advertisements.
Bill Willenbrock, Stand with Rand PAC’s treasurer, said his group had not been asked to change its name by the FEC, adding that he was “not aware that Ayn Rand was running for office,” making reference to the deceased author, a libertarian icon.
The super PAC’s website features a photo of the Kentucky senator above the assertion that it exists to “support candidates like Rand Paul who stand up for the Constitution and, more specifically, the Bill of Rights.”
In a previous interview with the Center for Public Integrity, Willenbrock said his group planned to support Paul as well as “other candidates who stand for liberty,” such as Sens. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Mike Lee, R-Utah.
The super PAC has not yet been required to report any fundraising to the FEC, but Democratic heavyweights such as strategist James Carville and former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm have already made pitches for the group.
“We are aware of this federal regulation,” said Jim Lamb, Ready for Hillary’s general counsel. “If Hillary decides to run and becomes a candidate, we will continue to be in compliance with this regulation.”
Further confusing the issue, political committees designed to specifically oppose a candidate are granted an exemption from the rules governing names for special projects and communications — though the FEC hasn’t explicitly defined the terms.
The only other exception to the naming restriction is for groups that seek to “draft” a candidate to run for office. These groups must also “clearly indicate” that they are “a draft committee,” according to federal law.
Like super PACs, draft committees need not abide by the strict contribution limits faced by candidate’s own committees.