- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Fifty wealthy persons and companies gave at least $100,000 each to affect American politics last month, overwhelmingly to Republican super PACs, making the attack-ad weapons far stronger than that of their Democratic counterparts, new disclosures show.

But also in financial reports of presidential campaigns and the PACs were signs of limits to the big money’s power. Though former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and his super PAC enjoy an advantage over his rivals for the Republican presidential nomination, former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich both raised twice as much in contributions smaller than $200.

And Mr. Santorum has received donations of $200 and up from more people than Mr. Romney.

The new reports, covering February, raised questions about how much longer Mr. Gingrich, who ended the month with more debt than cash and raised only $2.6 million, can stay in the race. His allied super PAC received $5 million from its chief benefactors, but it has since spent all but $1.4 million.

As the super PAC supporting Mr. Romney reported a $6.4 million haul for the month - half from one donor - it seemed clear the finance-industry money that has enabled it to run $34 million in attack ads, $7 million this month, could also be a liability.

The Apollo Group, owns several for-profit educational institutions, gave $75,000, more than all but one other company. President Obama has made an effort to require for-profit colleges to show that they prepare students for jobs before handing out government loans.

Payday lenders, which loan money at interest rates critics say border on usury, were among the most common donors. Most gave under their own names, but executives from one, Moneytree, gave instead through an opaquely named limited liability company.

And as candidates jockey to position themselves as Washington outsiders, 13 lobbyists bundled $500,000 for Mr. Romney, up from three the prior month.

As the large donations from wealthy people went to Mr. Romney’s super PAC, the one working to re-elect Mr. Obama had a different problem: It didn’t have any. In the first month since Mr. Obama enlisted Cabinet secretaries to appear as attractions at fundraising events, Priorities USA fared poorly. Though super PACs have been widely condemned by Democrats as corrupting, Mr. Obama reluctantly endorsed the group.

The super PAC received only seven contributions higher than what could be given through traditional channels, with half its haul in the form of a $1 million check from liberal talk-show host and comedian Bill Maher. While scores of Hollywood celebrities gave the maximum allowed $30,000 contribution to the Democratic National Committee, which often earned them audiences with the president at private gatherings, none was willing to give more to the super PAC. The United Auto Workers union gave $100,000.

Priorities USA is hoping to eventually compete with conservative super PACs American Crossroads, which raised $3.4 million, and FreedomWorks, which raised $450,000 - one-third transferred from an affiliate, effectively hiding the money’s source. The Washington Times reported Wednesday that despite preferring more conservative candidates, FreedomWorks will begin encouraging Republicans to rally around Mr. Romney as the likely GOP nominee.

Sen. Jim DeMint, South Carolina Republican, transferred $500,000 in campaign funds to the Club for Growth, a pioneering move in the new world of super PACs, in which a politician who labored to raise money under contribution caps gave it to an independent group that can collect large sums more easily. The Club for Growth’s super PAC, like Mr. DeMint, has sought to push the Republican Party to the right in primary races.

In some cases, Republican money worked against itself - even within a family: Harold Simmons’ family donated to all three major candidates’ super PACs last month. In other cases, even large dollar amounts highlight vulnerability. The Gingrich super PAC continued to rely almost exclusively on money from the family of casino magnate Sheldon Adelson.

The super PAC supporting Mr. Santorum had only $300,000 on hand March 1, but it has spent $1.7 million this month, indicating that it has since received some major support.

As for campaigns, Mr. Gingrich’s paid the candidate $156,000 last month for unspecified reasons. The Washington Times has reported that such payments are against Federal Election Commission (FEC) rules and raise the prospect of self-dealing. Last Thursday, the FEC faulted the campaign for the practice for the third time, pointing to a statute in the U.S. code that clearly prohibits it.

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