How much can an outside group, bankrolled by millionaires, help a candidate win an election?
In the midst of a bitterly divided campaign season, not even the country's top election officials could decide.
The Federal Election Commission argued Thursday whether Republican-leaning American Crossroads could fully coordinate with federal campaigns. The request from Crossroads came in response to accusations of improper coordination between Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska and his state party.
In the end, amid brief theatrics and semantics over dictionary definitions, the FEC's six commissioners remained deadlocked along party lines. The impasse provides little clarity this election cycle, when outside groups have promised to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to support presidential candidates.
The FEC's inability to agree on some key questions surrounding electioneering conduct comes as "super" political committees _ they can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money _ have expanded to support members of Congress.
On the whole, watchdogs have noted the blurring between super PACs and the candidates they support: ex-aides to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney are backing an outside group supportive of his White House run, and even President Barack Obama's former spokesman is heading up a Democratic-leaning PAC to boost his old boss's re-election efforts.
"Candidate-specific super PACs are the most dangerous vehicles in the country today as entities that provide the opportunity for corruption of our elected officials," said Fred Wertheimer, the president of Democracy 21 and a supporter of campaign-finance restrictions. He predicted they would "spread like wildfire to members of Congress."
Indeed, the match has been lit. Several House and Senate members are angling for super PACs to work in their favor, notably Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, who wanted to raise endless amounts of money for his leadership PAC to help conservative candidates. The FEC disagreed unanimously, saying that his Constitutional Conservatives Fund PAC was subject to limitations and reporting requirements.
But unanimous decisions on big issues can be the exception at the FEC these days.
Washington operatives and campaign-finance watchdogs have turned to the court of public opinion: Super PACs like Crossroads say they are simply exercising their free-speech rights, while groups like Democracy 21 warn of a return to the corrupt Watergate era.
It's a division that has inflamed not only election watchdogs but also members of the public. Following a recent plea by Comedy Central's Stephen Colbert for his viewers to write to the FEC about Crossroads' request, commissioners said they received hundreds of comments _ nearly a record-breaker _ that widely denounced the unraveling of campaign-finance rules.
"Are you out of your ever-lovin' minds?" asked one writer.
"I can't believe how you people would let the government by the people become bought from the people," another wrote. "Are you trying to cause a new revolution?"
Quips like those were read aloud at Thursday's hearing but received little quarter from one of the FEC's conservative members, Donald McGahn, who assailed one of his Democratic colleagues for what he described as straw-man arguments and ignoring existing campaign-finance regulations.
"You don't get to rip out the rules," he said, hastily tearing out pages from a book and casting it on the dais.
FEC commissioners are likely to revisit the coordination issue, one that straddles the legal line between "expressed advocacy" of a candidate and in-kind contributions.
Follow Jack Gillum at http://twitter.com/jackgillum