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Super-PACs are the elephant in the room

Fuel ad frenzy for GOP rivals

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The video advertisements are looping almost continuously, and early-primary voters can't escape. Newt Gingrich "has a ton of baggage." Jon Huntsman Jr. "is more conservative than Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney combined." And President Obama's "plan is working: destroy Mitt Romney, run against Newt Gingrich."

And that's even before viewers hear from the campaigns.

The Supreme Court's 2010 campaign-finance ruling Citizens United effectively created "super-PACs" - independent, explicitly political groups that can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money. But it is only in the past few days that the ruling's effects have become most dramatically realized.

Not counting a single penny dropped by the campaigns, $8.3 million already has been spent advocating for or opposing presidential candidates this year, and the majority has been spent this month.

On Tuesday evening, a group supporting Texas Gov. Rick Perry disclosed that it spent $450,000 on Monday, and one supporting former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney reported a $105,000 buy Monday, just hours after the candidate called laws allowing the groups "a disaster."

On Friday, the super-PAC run by a former top Romney aide plunked down $1.3 million in airtime for blistering ads against Mr. Gingrich, a former House speaker. The day prior, a group thought to be funded largely by the father of Mr. Huntsman spent nearly a half-million dollars attempting to kick-start the lagging candidate's campaign. The day before that, boosters hoped $200,500 would be enough to revive the campaign of former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania. On Dec. 12, the same pro-Perry group spent a half-million dollars and the same pro-Romney group spent $1 million.

The enormous ad buys have been concentrated in Iowa, where that kind of money is enough to saturate every media market.

The sudden flurry of spending comes on the eve of Iowa's Jan. 3 caucuses and New Hampshire's Jan. 10 primary. But as the massive, heavy-handed buys come in rapid succession, it is also clear that an arms race is under way in which one big buy begets another, without the de facto ceiling put into place by caps on donor contributions.

"The super-PACs will see the need to respond to other groups' advertising that puts them in a bad light," said Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, which monitors money in politics.

Unlike traditional political campaigns, the financial magnitude of these groups' efforts can be revised with the emotion-filled stroke of a single large donor's pen as the race evolves, a fact that could continue to keep the Republican presidential race in the kind of flux it has been in for months.

"All it takes is a few - or even one - deep-pocketed donor to pay the way, and they're able to instantly become a contender in the messaging wars," Mrs. Krumholz said.

With rare and fleeting exceptions - such as the brief national outpouring of small donations to a lawmaker and his opponent after Rep. Joe Wilson shouted "You lie!" at the president as the nation watched - advocacy groups and candidates' campaigns haven't had that kind of ability to burst onto the scene. Instead, they tend to start slowly, with small-donor fundraising drives that raise the groups' profiles before they can make a splash.

That's not so with super-PACs.

Mr. Huntsman, a former Utah governor, has garnered little traction with voters, yet a group supporting him spent $1.9 million, ranking just behind pro-Romney and pro-Perry super-PACs.

The pro-Huntsman PAC, Our Destiny, didn't exist until late August and has never disclosed its donors, but the candidate's wealthy father gave it an undisclosed amount of cash.

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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