Super PACs, the new campaign weapon of choice since last year’s Supreme Court ruling that struck down contribution limits on corporations, labor unions, and wealthy individuals, are playing an increasingly muscular role in the days before the first contests in the Republican presidential nominating contest.
With two weeks until the Iowa caucuses and three weeks until the New Hampshire primary, committees aligned with specific candidates have poured more than $7 million into ads in the early states.
The proliferation of these committees — which can solicit large contributions but cannot work directly with candidates — has allowed campaigns to conserve their resources as their proxies hit the airwaves in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and, in the latest development, Florida.
The extent to which the campaign financing environment has changed since the 2010 court ruling was driven home last week by a report on the website Politico indicating that Las Vegas casino tycoon Sheldon Adelson intends to donate $20 million to a committee supportive of former House speaker Newt Gingrich.
Though Adelson denied he has made a specific commitment, let alone one for $20 million, the story illustrated how much influence even a single individual can potentially have following the Citizens United court case.
Restore Our Future, a committee supporting Mitt Romney, is leading the pack, spending more than $2.4 million on independent expenditures, mostly in Iowa and primarily attacking Gingrich, the latest of several candidates to challenge Romney for the front-runner’s perch.
Last week, the group expanded the war to Florida, buying $287,250 worth of ads in the Sunshine State, according to a report with the Federal Election Commission. Florida will hold the fourth nominating contest on Jan. 31, after Iowa and primaries in New Hampshire and South Carolina. A day earlier, the pro-Romney PAC reported purchasing more than $1 million in advertising in Iowa, part of what is expected to be a total of $3.1 million the group will expend in the first caucus state.
Earlier in the month, Restore Our Future reported purchasing almost $900,000 worth of ads in Iowa, with some promoting the former Massachusetts governor’s record but the bulk faulting Gingrich for his “baggage’’ and changing positions.
The pro-Romney PAC also reported buying about $140,000 worth of direct mail this month in Iowa, where Gingrich is being hit with a blizzard of negative mailers from at least three of his opponents.
Other super PACs that have been active in the GOP presidential contest, according to independent expenditure reports to the election commission, are:
■Make Us Great Again, supporting Governor Rick Perry of Texas, which has spent about $2 million on positive ads about Perry, mostly in Iowa but also in South Carolina.
■Our Destiny PAC, supporting the former governor of Utah, Jon Huntsman, which has spent nearly $1.9 million to air ads in New Hampshire, where Huntsman is concentrating his campaign. A substantial amount of the total time is on Boston stations that reach the Granite State’s populous southern tier.
■Red White and Blue Fund, supporting former senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, which has spent $200,500 on ads in Iowa, where Santorum is focusing his efforts.
■Priorities Action USA, a committee supporting President Obama, which has produced $306,229 worth of Web and broadcast media ads criticizing Romney.
Before Herman Cain suspended his campaign, a super PAC called the 9-9-9 Fund, after his tax plan, spent more than $468,000 to promote the former businessman’s candidacy.
Three super PACs with ties to Gingrich have filed paperwork with the election commission but as of yesterday none had reported making any independent expenditures.
The identities of many of the donors to these super PACs may not be disclosed to the election commission until Jan. 31, the date of the Florida primary, when year-end reports are due. In theory, at least, if one candidate gets hot through the early contests, the nomination could be wrapped up before the public knows who paid for the advertisements that will fill the airwaves with increasing frequency.
Under Federal Election Commission rules, committees must file reports 12 days before a primary in which they have expended funds. That means that Our Destiny PAC, which has aired ads in New Hampshire supporting Huntsman, must disclose its receipts and expenditures by Dec. 29. However, the election commission has not required such reports before caucuses like Iowa’s, a recent memo directed to committee treasurers states.
“It’s the worst of all possible worlds,’’ said Trevor Potter, a former commission chairman appointed by President George H.W. Bush. “You have no contribution limits [like those on contributions to the candidates’ campaigns] and hit-or-miss disclosure.’’ Potter is also president of the Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan campaign finance watchdog group.
“The difference in this cycle is that candidates are raising much less money than they did before for their own campaigns, and their big donors are giving to super PACs and the amount spent is much more,’’ said Potter, who was campaign counsel to Republican John McCain’s presidential campaigns in 2000 and 2008. “The fund-raisers are leaving the campaigns and going to the super PACs because the people they know are writing the big checks.’’
This has led to criticism that the super PACs, which are also known as independent-expenditure only committees, maintain less than arm’s-length relationships with the campaigns of the candidates they support. The super PACs are staffed by former aides or close associates of the candidates and the election commission has ruled that candidates may actually promote the activities of these allied committees, but it has prohibited expenditures “made in concert or cooperation with, or at the request or suggestion of, a candidate, the candidate’s campaign or a political party.’’
“The coordination rule is one of the toughest things the FEC deals with,’’ said Bradley A. Smith, a former commission chairman appointed by President Clinton and now a professor at the Capital University Law School. “It’s very easy to allege coordination but once you do, you get a very intrusive investigation, with access to all their memos. Campaign finance laws are not intended to regulate speech, and once you get into the issue of coordination, it gets very dicey,’’ Smith said.
On the question of coordination, much has been made of Huntsman’s father, a wealthy businessman, contributing to the PAC that is supportive of the candidate.
“If we know it’s Huntsman’s dad who is giving, should we be unduly concerned because he’ll have influence because he gave money or because he’s his dad?’’ Smith said.
“If it’s a group with a name that doesn’t tell people anything, like ‘Americans for Really Good Stuff’ and we don’t know who’s behind it, that creates a problem,’’ he said.
“But a lot of these groups, even if you don’t know exactly who’s funding them, we basically know what their agenda is,’’ he said. “The question is: Does it really matter to the public who the donors are?’ ’’
On the issue of accelerating the timing of disclosure, Smith said, “It’s probably a congressional matter, not an FEC thing.’’
Brian C. Mooney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.