Could 2012 produce the first secretly financed primaries?
That might be a result of recent moves by Florida and other early-voting states to move their primaries and caucuses ahead to January, according to some campaign finance experts.
The new schedule raises the possibility of outside spending groups running millions of dollars in ads in the final days of the races — without having to disclose them until the contests are over.
The likelihood of such an outcome is unclear and depends on how so-called super PACs decide to navigate complicated Federal Election Commission deadlines.
But advocates for tougher campaign finance regulations say the situation provides another example of how recent court rulings have made it easier to dodge disclosure laws and other rules aimed at ensuring transparency in elections.
“There are more and more ways to keep things secret if you want to,” said Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a watchdog group. “This is just another example of a way to make secret expenditures until after the election.”
Super PACs, a new breed of political group unrestrained by spending or contribution limits, are becoming big players in the 2012 campaigns. Each of the major Republican presidential candidates has at least one of these groups on his or her side, and the super PACs are expected to attract hundreds of millions of dollars by the time the White House race is over.
The next disclosure deadline for super PACs is Jan. 31, when FEC reports covering the last six months of 2011 are due.
Under the old primary schedule, that didn’t matter much because the Iowa caucuses — the first Republican nominating contest — were going to be held in early February. That meant that any super PAC would be required to disclose its 2011 donors by the time the first 2012 ballots were cast.
But the schedule has changed dramatically. The Florida Republican Party is moving its primary to the end of January, prompting a scramble by other early-voting states — New Hampshire, South Carolina, Nevada and Iowa — to move up their dates even more. The Iowa caucuses are now expected to be held on Jan. 2 or 3.
The reshuffling raises the possibility that super PACs can avoid having to report donors to the FEC until after the January contests — even if they take part in those races by spending money on ads. Because many of the groups are new, it would mean that voters would have no idea who was paying to influence the primaries until after the dust settled.
There are two narrow ways to make this happen, experts said. First, a super PAC can confine its spending to the 19 days before the primary, which is outside the “pre-primary” disclosure cutoff under FEC rules. The second way to delay disclosure would be to switch to a monthly reporting schedule, which would eliminate the requirement for a report before the primary.
Brett Kappel, a campaign finance lawyer at Arent Fox, noted that the 2010 midterms featured several super PACs that were effectively funded by one or two wealthy donors. With careful juggling of the schedule, he said, determined funders could keep their names out of the headlines until after the major primary contests.
“You could see an extremely wealthy person trying to game the system in this way,” Kappel said.
Speaking of super PACs, the newfangled organizations — technically called “independent expenditure-only committees” by the FEC — continue to spread like mushrooms ahead of the 2012 elections.
One group formed this week, Strong Utah PAC, will focus on shielding Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) from the kind of tea party challenge that unseated longtime senator Robert F. Bennett in 2010. Officials also said Wednesday that a top aide to Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) is leaving his job to form a super PAC focused on helping GOP House candidates.
About 150 active super PACs are on file with the FEC, including about three dozen that have formed since July.