The blistering super-PAC war during the Republicans' presidential primaries seemed to presage a long, nasty fight all the way through Election Day.
But with less than a month to go, the race has narrowed to two candidates both adept at raising their own money in the traditional way, and, with some wealthy donors preferring the anonymity of nonprofit groups, the super PACS have proven less than super in the general election.
By the time the dust settles, barring a dramatic change in the final weeks, the chief effect of the super PACs on this election may have been as a means for Republicans to attack each other.
In the Republican primaries, the super PAC Winning Our Future, funded by Las Vegas casino magnate Sheldon Adelson to back candidate Newt Gingrich, spent $20 million relentlessly attacking Mitt Romney. While ultimately unsuccessful, the attacks have provided ammunition which Democrats have been quick to exploit.
"This money has hurt Republicans as much as helped them, and I don't think there's anything more illustrative of that than what Winning Our Future did in turning Bain Capital into a weapon against Romney, when turning around businesses was supposed to be one of his biggest assets," said Bill Allison, an analyst on money in politics at the nonpartisan Sunlight Foundation.
Thanks to the early GOP primary battles, the tally as of last week was lopsided: $162 million had been spent on damaging Republicans, compared to $115 million to attack Democrats, according to an analysis by The Washington Times.
A massive super PAC advantage that Mr. Romney was expected to have, thanks to his support in the financial industry, never materialized, with Priorities USA, the major pro-Obama super PAC actually levying slightly more attacks on Mr. Romney than Restore Our Future has on President Obama.
Restore Our Future, founded by Romney aides in 2010, ran only $4 million in ads in September — the same amount it ran in December, nearly a full year before the general election. In fact, even as Mr. Romney's campaign grew dramatically, Restore Our Future spent the same amount in the four months ending in April, when Mr. Romney effectively clinched the nomination, as it has in the four months since. And it raised only $7 million in August, the last month for which totals are available — the least it had raised in three months.
Despite better numbers for September October, Restore Our Future is "not going to be the 10,000-pound gorilla in the room," one Republican strategist said.
At the same time, Priorities USA, the super PAC backing Mr. Obama, has stepped up its activities. In August, it raised $10 million.
"Democrats have been slow to embrace super PACs because many of them are ideologically opposed to them," said Darrell M. West, a political analyst with the Brookings Institution, a liberal-leaning Washington think tank. But Democrats have decided to embrace them "because they don't want to be at a competitive disadvantage to Republicans."
As for super PACs, even in lower-tier races, their money has been a tool for internecine Republican warfare.
In Senate races, $39 million in super PAC ads have been run against Republicans, versus $15 million that backed a Republican or attacked a Democrat.
Much of that was spent in Texas's bitter GOP Senate primary, where the Texas Conservatives Fund spent $6 million attacking Ted Cruz, the eventual nominee, and the Club for Growth Action Fund spent $5 million attacking Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, who lost the race.
In the House, $21 million has been spent opposing Republicans, while only two-thirds that much was spent attacking Democrats or defending GOP candidates.
Part of the reason for heavy spending in GOP primaries has been Republican battles over the party's direction post-George W. Bush, as tea party and other conservative groups are increasingly challenging longtime incumbents, said Club for Growth President Chris Chocola, a former Republican congressman from Indiana.
"Some incumbents haven't had primary challenges for years and years so they've been able to stockpile," he said, adding that super PACs are a previously unavailable equalizer.
In the House, the dominant super PAC has been a Democratic group, the House Majority PAC, which has spent $9 million in anti-Republican ads. The pro-Democratic group has had more success attracting money from labor unions than Republicans such as the Young Guns Action Fund seemed to have soliciting money from business executives.
• Sean Lengell contributed to this report.
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