The Democratic Senate's campaign committee will file a complaint Monday with the Federal Election Commission against three groups: Karl Rove's Crossroads GPS, the Koch-financed Americans for Prosperity and the conservative seniors' group the 60 Plus Association.
These non-profit "social welfare" groups, the complaint argues, have been spending the majority of their time on conservative political activity despite rules that say they cannot do so. These groups insist they are just educating the public.
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As long as political activity isn't their primary purpose, social welfare organizations can act as any other political group—only they aren't required to reveal their donors as all other political groups are. They also aren't required to report much of their political activity to the FEC.
For the sake of argument, let's imagine the complaint was initiated earlier, and that it was successful, meaning these groups' spending and anonymous donors had to be disclosed. In fact, if the complaint were really successful, these groups may no longer exist at all.
How would the 2012 presidential election be different?
Because these groups don't disclose most of their spending, it's hard to say how much they've spent this year. But a look at what they have reported, and what they've spent in the past, can provide some clues. From the Center for Responsive Politics:
Reported in 2012: $286,777
Context clues: They've spent considerably more than what they reported. Just last week, the group announced a $25 million ad buy against President Obama. It spent more than $17 million in 2010, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Americans For Prosperity
Context clues: In 2010, it spent $1.3 million on federal races, according to the Center. Its state affiliates likely spent considerably more. Financial statements indicate it spent $6.5 million on "communications, ads, and media" in 2010.
60 Plus Assocation
Context clues: In 2010, the groups spent $7 million, mostly targeting Democratic candidates. Tax filings indicate it spent more than $11 million in 2010 on educational programs and direct mail.
In total, that’s $370,420 that would not have been spent if these groups did not exist—but that’s only looking at reported data.
The New York Times notes that the FEC is usually slow to respond to this kind of complaint, so it's unlikely it could affect the 2012 election. But in a post-Citizens United environment, the decision could very well affect elections to come.