'Super PACs' alter campaign

By Dan Eggen and T.W. Farnam
Tuesday, September 28, 2010

A new political weapon known as the "super PAC" has emerged in recent weeks, allowing independent groups to both raise and spend money at a pace that threatens to eclipse the efforts of political parties.

The committees spent $4 million in the last week alone and are registering at the rate of nearly one per day. They are quickly becoming the new model for election spending by interest groups, according to activists, campaign-finance lawyers and disclosure records.

The super PACs were made possible by two court rulings, including one early this year by the Supreme Court, that lifted many spending and contribution limits. The groups can also mount the kind of direct attacks on candidates that were not allowed in the past.

Three dozen of the new committees have been registered with the Federal Election Commission over the past two months, including such major players as the conservative Club for Growth, the Republican-allied American Crossroads and the liberal women's group Emily's List.

FEC records show that super PACs have spent more than $8 million on television advertising and other expenditures, almost all of it within the past month. Groups favoring GOP candidates have outspent Democratic supporters by more than 3 to 1, mirroring an overall surge in spending by the Republican Party and its allies in recent weeks, records show.

The super PACs have "opened the door to the clearest, easiest way to spend unlimited funds on an election," said Trevor Potter, a former FEC chairman who served as general counsel to GOP presidential candidate John McCain in 2008. "This is pretty much the holy grail that people have been looking for."

The new committees are part of a complicated patchwork of fundraising operations that fuel political campaigns. They range from committees formed by individual candidates to the political parties and interest groups. The system relies heavily on political action committees, or PACs, which are mostly used to donate funds to indvidual campaigns and must adhere to strict limits on donations.

But the super PACs, officially known as "independent expenditure-only committees," are free of most of those constraints. The only caveat is that they are not allowed to coordinate directly with candidates or political parties. The groups must disclose their donors, although most have not done so yet because they are so new and will not file their first disclosure reports until mid-October.

Among super PAC spending, more than half has come from American Crossroads, a pro-Republican group founded with the help of former George W. Bush administration adviser Karl Rove. Donations to the group include $400,000 from American Financial Group, a publicly held company, which could make the contribution because of the Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. That ruling lifted restrictions on corporate spending in elections.

In two days last week, American Crossroads' super PAC reported spending $2.8 million on ads attacking Democratic candidates, including Rep. Joe Sestak (Pa.), Jack Conway (Ky.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.). "Harry Reid," one ad intones, "extremely out of touch with Nevada."

The super PAC is just one part of the American Crossroads operation, which also includes a nonprofit advocacy arm called American Crossroads GPS that does not have to disclose its donors under U.S tax laws. Overall, American Crossroads says it has raised about $32 million, divided evenly between its super PAC and nonprofit arms.

"There are some donors who are interested in anonymity when it comes to advocating for specific issues," spokesman Jonathan Collegio said.

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