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Inside a super PAC that spends on everything but winning

ELLISVILLE, MS - JUNE 24: Republican candidate for U.S. Senate Mississippi State Sen. Chris McDaniel talks with members of the media after casting his ballot at the George Harrison Building on June 24, 2014 in Ellisville, Mississippi. 

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The two billionaire mega donors poured $1.25 million into a super PAC that was supposed to supercharge Chris McDaniel's insurgent bid to be Mississippi's next Republican senator.

A year later, much of the money from Illinois shipping supply CEO Richard Uihlein and New York financier Robert Mercer is gone. Only a fraction was spent reaching voters who could boost the former state lawmaker's uphill battle against Cindy Hyde-Smith, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's preferred candidate in a November special election that will determine who finishes out retired GOP Sen. Thad Cochran's term.

What the Remember Mississippi super PAC has provided, however, is a generous payday for at least 18 campaign consultants who received the lion's share of the money, according to an analysis of Federal Election Commission records.

Since a landmark 2010 Supreme Court ruling, much of the debate over super PACs has focused on how a wealthy cadre of donors can now give unlimited amounts, allowing them to play an outsized role in who gets elected. This case highlights how that money doesn't always get spent the way it's intended.

"It is part of the growing trend of people using super PACs to get wealthy, rather than to direct the funds they raise toward actual political activity," said Adav Noti, a former FEC attorney who now works for the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center in Washington.

Of the nearly $1.4 million raised by Remember Mississippi, about $265,000 went to expenses like video production, ads, graphic design and other forms of communication that either advocated for McDaniel or opposed his rivals, according to their latest FEC report at the end of June.

Meanwhile, consultants and operating expenses soaked up nearly three times that, or $792,000. That leaves a little more than $300,000 ahead of the November special election.

So far, Remember Mississippi has spent about $25,000 — with most of that dropped just last week — on airtime and ad production attacking Hyde-Smith, records show.

But Hyde-Smith, a onetime Democrat who formerly served as the state's agriculture commissioner and was temporarily appointed to fill Cochran's Senate seat last April until the special election, has $1.3 million on hand, which is vastly more than either McDaniel or the super PAC. And Remember Mississippi hasn't had a major cash infusion since January, aside from a $25,000 donation from beer baron August A. Busch III. That puts McDaniel, who has just $156,000 in his own campaign fund, at a disadvantage.

"I don't think that's how the typical super PAC runs, but it's not unheard of," said Dan Weiner, a campaign finance attorney with New York University's Brennan Center. "It's the Wild West. There's just very little law that applies."

In an emailed statement, PAC leader Tommy Barnett justified the large amount spent on consultants, which he said produced "a strong regional volunteer presence across Mississippi that has been putting up signs, passing out bumper stickers, and attending events engaging directly with voters."

"We will have funds to get out the radio, TV, and digital advertisements we already have produced," Barnett said.

The PAC takes its name from the "Remember Mississippi" rallying cry McDaniel adopted after losing a bitterly fought primary against Cochran in 2014. McDaniel blamed Democrats "illegally" voting in the GOP contest and national Republicans spending "millions of dollars to character assassinate one of their own," though the Mississippi Supreme Court rejected his lawsuit challenging the outcome.

That race also took an unsavory twist after four of McDaniel's supporters were charged in connection with a plot to photograph Cochran's wife in her nursing home, where she had spent years suffering dementia. The men, one of whom was sentenced to 21/2 years in prison, had hoped to advance allegations Cochran was having an inappropriate relationship with a staffer while neglecting his wife.

This year McDaniel, who was urged to run again by former White House counselor Steve Bannon, expected to challenge GOP Sen. Roger Wicker. But Cochran's retirement upended that. Now, due to special election quirks, he faces Hyde-Smith, as well as two Democrats on a wide-open special election ballot.

Remember Mississippi has paid for social media and radio ads, though so far it has spent only about $5,500 on TV, according to Federal Communications Commission records. A YouTube page for the group includes several videos that have been viewed a handful of times. The sometimes-shaky footage captures McDaniel weighing in on red-meat conservative issues like immigration, national debt and taxes, which he said politicians use to "waste or defraud" voters.

Some of the consultants and firms working for the group are well established, and at least one has ties to Texas Sen. Ted Cruz's 2016 presidential bid. Others are murkier and have a limited web presence. One consultant, Dan Tripp, who is running for Greenville County Council in South Carolina, advertises free webinars that promise to teach candidates how to "Discover Your Campaign's Pathway to Victory Using Four Tried-And-True Strategies." Tripp, who has been paid about $112,000, did not respond to a request for comment.

A number of consultants worked on McDaniel's 2014 campaign. Two, former Mississippi state Sen. Melanie Sojourner and Richard Burke, left the super PAC to join McDaniel's campaign.

In March, McDaniel drew scrutiny over what appeared to be coordination between the group and his campaign, which is a violation of FEC rules.

The Campaign Legal Center, the group that campaign finance attorney Noti works for, filed a complaint alleging Remember Mississippi made "illegal, excessive and unreported" contributions to McDaniel by paying for several catered events that were promoted as official campaign activities.

McDaniel denied there was any coordination.

"There is none. Once I announced (my candidacy), I was not allowed to have any contact whatsoever," he said in an interview.

Money donated by Mercer and Uihlein to support McDaniel is a drop in the bucket compared to their own fortunes.

Uihlein, who contributed $750,000 to Remember Mississippi, has given more than $48 million to party committees and outside groups, like super PACs, according to the FEC. Mercer, who donated $500,000 to the super PAC, has given more than $39 million to such groups.

Neither responded to requests for comment.

Noti said the real issue is not whether the money was squandered, but the level of access it would buy if McDaniel wins.

"The fact that sometimes mega donors make poor decisions about where to invest their money doesn't change the fact that they are still buying outsized influence," he said.