Super-PACs are the elephant in the room

Fuel ad frenzy for GOP rivals

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A Gingrich-backing group Winning Our Future formed Dec. 13 after the candidate’s surge in polls, but it has yet to make its first ad buy. Its donors are unknown, but casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, perhaps the largest donor in Republican politics, has been a longtime Gingrich benefactor.

Such an entrance would help compensate for the fact that, as of the last federally mandated disclosure, Mr. Gingrich’s presidential campaign was heavily in debt.

It’s a seemingly unstoppable escalation from which candidates benefit substantially while being able to distance themselves when convenient.

Appearing Tuesday on the MSNBC program “Morning Joe,” Mr. Romney called the groups’ existence “a disaster” - but with $2.5 million spent on his behalf so far, he has been by far the biggest beneficiary.

Mr. Romney said that, despite his distaste for the little-regulated groups, he would not ask Restore Our Future to call off its ads because “I’m not allowed to communicate with the super-PAC in any way.”

The former Massachusetts governor indicated Tuesday that he favors campaigns themselves being able to accept and spend donations of any size.

Restore Our Future announced a major ad buy this month by showing reporters a pro-Romney ad, but records show that all of its spending has been on attack ads against Mr. Gingrich. Other presidential race super-PAC ads have been positive, records show.

A “good cop/bad cop” strategy - super-PACs doing the dirty work of negative campaigning, while the candidate’s own hands remain clean - doesn’t just apply in presidential campaigns. In U.S. House special elections this year, 80 percent of independently spent dollars bought negative ads.

Super-PACs can raise unlimited funds because candidates are supposed to have no say over how they are spent, but they are far from independent. Candidates can speak at super-PAC fundraisers, and nothing can prevent campaigns from transmitting their strategies and desires through the media and public disclosures.

For example, the group backing Mr. Perry, Make Us Great Again, was formed in part by a former top aide and has helped the Texas governor’s campaign by providing an outlet for donations from his network of maxed-out Texas donors.

The disclosure rules surrounding super-PACs also differ from those governing the campaigns in ways that frustrate efforts in campaign-finance law to promote transparency and enable efforts to hide who is bankrolling the super-PACs.

For example, unlike campaigns, super-PACs have had to provide no glimpse of the wealthy donors who have fueled them since June.

In addition, super-PACs can receive any amount of money from a nonprofit group or company, but that entity need not say where it got the money. Taking advantage of that loophole, a business associate of Mr. Romney incorporated a company in Delaware with the sole purpose of giving $1 million to Restore Our Future.

Also, super-PACs can choose to disclose monthly rather than quarterly during election years, as campaigns must. And because Restore Our Future changed last week to monthly reports, it need not file special pre-election disclosures. Such timing could allow one man’s huge donation on election eve to remain anonymous until after the public has voted, keeping early-state Republicans from being able to weigh who is behind the attacks.

“Other super-PACs may follow suit,” Mrs. Krumholz said, “with the net effect (and possibly with the intent) of postponing donor disclosure until after the first four” primaries and caucuses.

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