- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 18, 2012

Democrats have vilified super PACs since the Supreme Court deemed the murky megamoney-spenders legal in early 2010. And leading that charge has been President Obama, who, during his State of the Union speech that year, famously chastised the PACs’ power for unlimited political spending with little transparency.

But after Democrats suffered humiliating losses in the midterm elections two years ago — when conservative political action committees helped push the Republican Party to historic gains — Democrats increasingly have turned to outside groups for help this election season, fostering the proliferation and potency of Democratic-friendly super PACs.

“Democrats have been slow to embrace super PACs because many of them are ideologically opposed to them, and so it’s hard for them to use something with which they disagree,” said Darrell M. West, a politics scholar with the Brookings Institution, a liberal-leaning Washington think tank. “But what we’ve seen in this election cycle is that Democrats rely on super PACs because they don’t want to be at a competitive disadvantage to Republicans.”

Four of the nine biggest spending super PACs are dedicated to helping elect Democrats, according to OpenSecrets.org, a nonpartisan website that tracks campaign spending. All either didn’t exist during the 2010 elections or, if they did, spent a small fraction of their current spending spree.

The largest of these, Priorities USA Action, has spent more than $44 million for the 2012 elections, making it the third-biggest super PAC overall in terms of spending.

Priorities USA has been the principal pro-Obama counterweight to such conservative super PAC heavies as Restore Our Future and the Karl Rove-backed American Crossroads, hitting back at the Republican-friendly groups by sponsoring a slew of negative ads targeting GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

While Democrats frequently still rail against super PACs — with Mr. Obama going so far recently as to suggest a constitutional amendment to outlaw them — they’ve come to accept, and even embrace, the political reality that the groups aren’t going away any time soon and to shun them would be political suicide.

Norm Ornstein, a political analyst with the Republican-leaning American Enterprise Institute, said he doesn’t view the Democrats’ position of railing against super PACs while simultaneously enjoying their benefits as hypocritical.

“Let’s say you’re vociferously against an NFL rule that enabled offensive tackles to hold, and you thought it was a terrible idea and you worked very hard for its repeal. Would you tell your offensive tackles not to [hold], even though it means that your quarterback is going to be at a huge disadvantage and will get sacked repeatedly?” Mr. Ornstein said. “Of course not. You’re going to say, use the rules and continue to fight against them.”

While super PACs legally are barred from coordinating with candidates and political parities, their presence in races has helped the parties stretch their campaign dollars. When the Democrat-friendly House Majority PAC last month, for example, said it was spending $1 million on efforts to defeat Rep. Allen B. West’s re-election bid in Florida, it allowed the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee to shift ad money out of the race and spend it elsewhere.

Still, Democratic-friendly super PACs have a long way to go before they catch up with their conservative counterparts. Of the more than $393 million spent by super PACs for the 2012 elections, almost 70 percent was doled out by conservative groups, OpenSecrets.org says.

And two biggest conservative super PACs, the Restore Our Future and American Crossroads, have spent a combined $160 million on behalf of conservative candidates and causes — almost four times that of Priorities USA Action.

However, because Republicans had a contested presidential primary, their super PACs spent some of that money attacking other Republicans, while pro-Democrat super PACs largely lay dormant early in the year because they couldn’t be sure whom they’d face in November.

Mr. West says he doesn’t believe super PAC spending ever will be split evenly along ideological lines because conservative groups and individuals overall are wealthier and more willing to donate money for political causes than liberals.

“People with money are more likely to be Republican, and that’s the funding base,” he said.

The Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision struck down most political spending limits for unions as well as corporations. But spending by organized labor-backed super PACs have lagged significantly behind other types, as only the Service Employees International Union has a super PAC listed among the top 10.

Corporation-backed super PACs have a huge advantage over those affiliated with organized labor because of their “unlimited pool of money” and the unions’ declining membership, said Matt Bennett of the Washington think tank Third Way.

“They’re not even going to get in the same ballpark,” Mr. Bennett said. “Folks on the right have long argued that the pernicious influence of labor money in politics is unbalanced. First, that was never true. But now we’re seeing that completely washed away.”

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