September 26, 2012 at 1:00 am

East Grand Rapids native's super PAC fuels Romney's rise

Charlie Spies, a Michigan native, is the co-founder of the nation’s largest super PAC, which he said has had a “huge impact.” (Matt Roth)

Charlie Spies' introduction to politics came at a young age when President Jimmy Carter fired his father.

Frank Spies was the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Michigan when he lost his job.

"I was too young at the time to understand how political appointees worked, I just knew that Jimmy Carter was a bad man," Charlie Spies said.

Today, the East Grand Rapids native is working to fire President Barack Obama with the help of the super PAC he co-founded.

Restore Our Future has pumped more than $84 million into ad campaigns that helped vault Romney to victory in the primaries in Michigan and other states. As the largest outside political group, the committee has raised nearly $97 million, including more than $1.4 million in Michigan.

Spies, a former aide to Romney in his 2008 campaign, credits the candidate over his committee. But Bill Burton, senior strategist for Priorities USA, Obama's super PAC, said during the Republican National Convention that Romney "wouldn't be the nominee today if weren't for Charlie" and his super PAC.

The super PAC is behind about $7 million spent on ads in Michigan starting in the primary season, according to the group.

After a hiatus, the advertising returned to the airwaves this month spending $1.2 million a week on a spot that highlights what it says are the millions who have dropped out of the work force during Obama's term.

"I think we had a huge impact," said Spies, a managing partner at the Clark Hill law firm in Washington, D.C. "It was largely due to our ability to harness supporters that believed in his message and believe he's the most effective person to turn around the country."

So far, outside groups, including super PACs, have spent $465 million during the campaign, surpassing the $454 million spent in the 2010 election, according to data tracked by the Sunlight Foundation, a government watchdog group.

In comparison, the Romney campaign has spent about $229 million and the Obama campaign has spent $346 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Some political observers said Spies has carved out a niche in navigating the political campaign finance rules.

"He has good political sense and also enjoys the game, which I think is important in order to do a good job," said Saul Anuzis, the former state GOP chairman.

Restore Our Future was critical for Romney in the primary elections in shutting down early opponents like former Sen. Rick Santorum and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich with negative ads.

The super PAC, which paid for advertising in August when the former Massachusetts governor was restricted from spending his general election money, "kept Romney on the air at a time when he didn't have the campaign cash to do it," said Bill Allison, editorial director for the Sunlight Foundation.

Romney would not gain access to his general election funds until after the Republican National Convention.

Entered politics at U-M

After graduating from East Grand Rapids High School, Spies headed to the University of Michigan where he worked on his first major political campaign. It was the U.S. Senate race for Ronna Romney, the former wife of Mitt Romney's brother, Scott.

"He didn't shy away from the work on the fundraising side," said Paul Welday, who managed Romney's campaign.

As a college student, Spies took a keen interest in the business of financing a campaign, while willing to make the phone calls and knock on doors.

"We knew he was going places," Welday said.

Spies went on to Georgetown Law School. Though he stayed in Washington, D.C., he comes back to Michigan, where his family resides, to attend U-M football games. He's risen through the ranks to become legal counsel for many political campaigns nationwide, including U.S. Senate candidate Pete Hoekstra and U.S. Reps. Fred Upton and Dan Benishek.

Spies' relationship with Mitt Romney strengthened when Romney led the Republican Governors Association in 2006 and Spies was the general counsel and CFO. From there, he traveled to Boston to become chief financial officer and counsel for Romney's first bid for the White House.

In 2010, Spies joined two other former Romney aides, Carl Forti and Larry McCarthy, to form what is now the largest super PAC.

Spending by outside groups is not new for Republicans or Democrats, but it's reached new heights this presidential election after court rulings such as the 2010 Supreme Court "Citizens United" case gave rise to super PACs, which can raise unlimited funds to spend on behalf of a candidate.

Outside groups dominating

Outside groups are dominating the political landscape this year because of campaign finance reforms that placed limits on contributions to a candidate and political parties, Spies argues.

With money flowing elsewhere, candidates can't control their messaging. Specifically, super PACs are prohibited from coordinating with the candidate.

Allison said his biggest concern about the new legal structure for big donors is it's unclear the influence they carry after the election.

"It's not so much that they are giving the money, it's what are they getting in return," he said.

Spies has been advocating for a campaign finance system with unlimited contributions to candidates and political parties with immediate disclosure of donors. That way candidates can also control their advertising.

In Michigan, pro-Romney outside groups — including Restore Our Future, Americans for Prosperity and Crossroads GPS — have poured nearly $11 million in ad spending through Labor Day. No such spending was recorded for the Obama and Romney campaigns. A recent Detroit News/WDIV Local 4 polls, meanwhile, shows Romney down by 14 points in his native state.

Ad buy to help GOP races

Restore Our Future's recent ad buy is less likely about changing the outcome for Romney in Michigan, but more about avoiding "the humiliation of a complete fold" like Sen. John McCain did in 2008 pulling out of Michigan.

They also hope to help other Republican races on the ballot, said Rich Robinson of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, which tracked the ad spending.

"If the message is the top of the ticket is dead, that has the effect of depressing the turnout," Robinson said.

Spies said the group believes the dynamics in Michigan are good for Romney with his hometown connection and Michigan's experience with a businessman as governor under Rick Snyder.

"We wouldn't be making such a significant investment over the next few weeks if we didn't absolutely think it's a competitive state," Spies said.

mschultz@detnews.com

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The super PAC is behind about $7 million spent on ads in Michigan. (Screen grab)