The landmark January 2010 Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission set the stage for a major change in the way that outside organizations can affect elections. Corporations and unions can now spend unlimited amounts towards independent expenditures--communications like advertisements, e-mail blasts, and survey research that expressly advocate the election or defeat of candidates. To take advantage of the new playing field, a proliferation of organizations called "independent-expenditure-only committees" have filed organization forms with the FEC. The proliferation of these groups, which have come to be known informally as "super PACs," has become one of the top stories of this election season. Though many news stories have focused on the profligate spending of Republican-allied super PACs like American Crossroads (No. 1), 5 of the 10 biggest-spending super PACs this have predominately supported Democrats or opposed Republican candidates.
Below are the 10 super PACs this election cycle in terms of spending, according to the most recent filings with the FEC, along with the amount they have spent.
1) American Crossroads ($21,042,334)
Formed by former George W. Bush adviser Karl Rove and former Republican National Committee Chair Ed Gillespie, this super PAC has been a behemoth of campaign spending this year, with a long string of independent expenditures stretching back to mid-August. Crossroads' big spending has targeted Democrats and supported Republicans in 13 Senate races and 20 House races across the country. Over $5.1 million--nearly one-quarter of the group's spending--has been spent on TV ads, mailings, and phone campaigns opposing Colorado Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet as he defends his seat against Republican Ken Buck.
2) America's Families First Action Fund ($5,597,231)
America's Families First has rapidly become the most prominent Democrat-allied super PAC. The group made its first independent expenditure on October 8, against Pennsylvania Republican Mike Fitspatrick, who is running in the state's Eighth Congressional District against Rep. Patrick Murphy. Since that time, the group has dumped $5.6 million into a total of 21 House races nationwide as part of its stated goal: "to help protect the Democratic majority in the U.S. House of Representatives."
3) Club for Growth Action ($4,718,178)
The Club for Growth is among the most powerful conservative organizations in the country. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the group is No. 81 among the top overall donors to political campaigns since 1989. The fiscally conservative club's super PAC has been active only in Senate races this year, promoting seven Republicans and opposing five Democrats, as well as Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, who is running as an independent in his state's Senate race. Of the group's $4.7 million in independent expenditures, nearly $2.5 million has been spent against Pennsylvania's Democratic Senate candidate, Rep. Joe Sestak. The club has also spent nearly $1 million on TV, Internet, and mailing campaigns opposing Colorado's Bennet and $310,000 supporting Alaska Senate candidate Joe Miller.
4) NEA Advocacy Fund ($4,200,000)
The National Education Association is the largest labor union in the United States, with a membership comprising 2.7 million public education teachers and staffers. Its super PAC has taken a targeted approach to its spending, laying out $4.2 million in October on advertisements in four Senate races: Colorado, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, and Washington. Like most labor unions, the NEA's spending has favored Democrats. The fund's primary target this cycle has been Colorado Republican Ken Buck, with $1.9 million going toward radio and TV ads opposing him. Also prominent on the NEA's list of candidates is Washington Republican Dino Rossi. The group has invested $1.4 million in radio and TV ads opposing Rossi as he takes on the Washington Democratic Sen. Patty Murray.
5) WOMEN VOTE! ($3,188,631)
WOMEN VOTE! is the super PAC affiliated with EMILY's List, an organization that advocates the election of prochoice Democratic women. The group kicked off 2010 by spending over $175,000 opposing Republican Scott Brown and promoting Democrat Martha Coakley in the Massachusetts special election for the Senate seat vacated by Ted Kennedy. Since then, WOMEN VOTE! has been active in 10 House and three Senate races, promoting Democratic women and taking on their opponents. The organization has dropped over $1 million opposing California Senate candidate Carly Fiorina, who will face Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer on Tuesday's ballot. Also on the super PAC's hit list are Colorado Republican House candidate Cory Gardner, who is opposing Rep. Betsy Markey in that state's Fourth District, and self-funded candidate Tom Ganley, who is challenging Rep. Betty Sutton in Ohio's 13th District.
6) Commonsense Ten ($3,172,577)
Formed in June by three Democratic strategists, Commonsense Ten began its spending in mid-September, on ads opposing the Missouri Republican Senate nominee, Rep. Roy Blunt. The group has primarily involved itself in the battleground Senate races of Colorado, Delaware Kentucky, Missouri, Washington, and West Virginia. But in the last week, Commonsense Ten has also turned its attention to Iowa's First-District House contest, dropping $390,000 opposing Republican Benjamin Lange as he challenges Democratic Rep. Bruce Braley.
7) Patriot Majority PAC ($1,873,897)
This super PAC, founded in October 2009, has spent nearly all of its money this cycle opposing Nevada Tea Party darling Sharron Angle, who is locked in a close race with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. For two months, the group has been engaging in radio, TV, direct mail, and phone campaigns against Angle, and has spent comparatively little--$18,200--in support of Reid. The group has reported independent expenditures in only one other race--that in Oregon's Fourth District, where Patriot Majority spent $13,225 on a direct mail campaign against Republican Art Robinson, who is challenging Rep. Peter DeFazio.
8) Super PAC for America ($1,633,785)
Dick Morris was a top adviser in the Clinton White House, working closely with the Democratic president on his successful 1996 reelection bid. Now, Morris is the chief strategist for Super PAC for America, and has set a goal of electing 100 new Republicans to the House in November. The group has quickly risen to the top of the super PAC heap, spending all of its $1.6 million in 17 House races since October 19. Chief among its chosen contenders is Tennessee Republican Scott Desjarlais. Super PAC for America has spent $173,000 on ads hyping Desjarlais, who will take on Democratic Rep. Lincoln Davis on Tuesday.
9) Alaskans Standing Together ($1,260,000)
Alaskans Standing Together has spent solely in support of one candidate this cycle: Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who is running as a write-in candidate after her defeat at the hands of Miller in her state's Republican primary. Since then, she has pulled ahead in the polls, and Alaskans Standing Together has been her biggest proponent. Since late September, the group has spent nearly $1.3 million on advertising promoting Murkowski, including TV spots instructing viewers on just how to elect her: "write in 'Lisa Murkowski'" and "fill in the oval."
10) Ending Spending Fund ($1,150,000)
The Ending Spending Fund is another recent addition to the list of top-spending super PACs, having shelled out all of its $1.2 million between October 19 and 21. The group, which is chaired by Chicago Cubs owner and former TD Ameritrade CEO J. Joseph Ricketts, says it supports or opposes candidates based on their positions on earmarks. It is the only group among the top 10 super PACs to be bipartisan in its spending. Though the group has largely opposed Democrats, including Reid, South Carolina Rep. John Spratt, and Texas Rep. Chet Edwards, the fund has also spent nearly $30,000 in support of Idaho Democratic Rep. Walter Minnick, who has sought a permanent ban on the practice of earmarks.