The New PACs: Super-sized Influence, Super Lack of Transparency

So-called Super PACs spend millions on ads in GOP race.

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They're spending millions of dollars to run advertisements impacting the GOP presidential primary race and they'll spend even more leading up to the 2012 general election. But who are they?

Known as "super PACs," they are groups formed to raise and spend money advocating for (or detracting from) candidates or issues. Unlike formal campaigns, they are not subject to any contribution limits and are subject to different Federal Election Commission reporting requirements. They also can't officially "coordinate" with campaigns, but many are made up of former staffers of the candidates they've been created to help.

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The super PACs are in fact fairly new, a result of the 2010 Supreme Court decision known as Citizens United which overturned the law preventing corporations and unions from spending on campaigns. Such groups had a role in the 2010 mid-term elections, but are growing in influence ahead of the 2012 presidential election.

Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan, non-profit that researches money in politics, decried the lack of transparency such groups have in a recent op-ed column in the New York Times.

"Disclaimers tell viewers which candidate or group with a soothing name is responsible in each case," she wrote. "But even as they choose from among the Republican presidential candidates, voters haven't been able to find out who is really behind the spots—who has been putting up the big money it takes to make and air these messages."

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Krumholz said the last time the super PACs had to disclose the names of their donors was in July. They'll have to make another disclosure at the end of January.

"So the funders behind the groups' activities in the electoral contests in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida won't be known until after the voting is all over," she wrote.

Another nonpartisan, non-profit government watchdog, the Sunlight Foundation, has put together a webpage clearing house for all 2012 presidential super PAC information, made available through federal campaign filings and via news reports. It provides a key of sorts to help determine the origin of some of the advertisements and who they are designed to help. Some candidates even have more than one group dedicated to supporting or opposing their campaigns.

For example, if you see an ad paid for by "Restore Our Future" you can learn that this is a group created by former aides to Mitt Romney, former governor of Massachusetts and leading candidate in the GOP presidential race. This group is not to be confused with "Winning Our Future," which was created by former aides to promote the candidacy of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

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Many attribute Gingrich's fall in the polls leading up to the Iowa caucus where he placed fourth after weeks earlier leading the race, to negative advertising paid for by the group supporting Romney's campaign. And now in South Carolina, the pro-Gingrich PAC is running anti-Romney advertisements hoping to slow his march to the nomination.

Krumholz argues that the FEC should be doing more to require timely disclosure of who is behind the advertising impacting this and likely future elections.

"The FEC should act to end the subterfuge and require faster disclosure," she wrote. "Like it or not (and most Americans don't), we have to live with Citizens United and the explosion in spending by outside groups that has come in its wake. But transparency shouldn't also be a victim of the court's decision."

Email: rmetzler@usnews.com

Twitter: @rebekahmetzler