2012's Super PAC Mania Is Just Getting Started

We have just started to see the implications of the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling.

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The Center for Responsive Politics (which I helped form in the horse and buggy days of 1983) just came out with a report on super PACs. We have just started to see the implications of the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling.

In fact, this plane is just in take-off mode and hasn't begun to start cruising at 30,000 feet yet. The next eight months will be supersonic, and my guess is that it will only pick up speed in future election cycles.

The same day that the center focused much of its attention on the presidential activity of the last several months, a headline in Politico steered us to the impending popularity of super PACs in House and Senate races, where last minute influxes of cash can be especially effective. Keep your eye on these PACs as they pour money into local campaigns this fall.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Super PACs.]

The Supreme Court ruling blew the lid off campaign donations, allowing unlimited gifts by individuals, corporations, unions, and pretty much any other domestic entity to a super PAC.

The numbers so far are truly amazing, since it is only March. According to the center, there are currently 371 super PACs and they have raised over $130 million so far.

The Restore Our Future PAC, which supports former Gov. Mitt Romney, has already spent $34 million, burying his rivals former Sen. Rick Santorum and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich in negative advertising. This has allowed him, no question, to win those close races in states such as Michigan and Ohio. Without Restore Our Future, Romney's campaign would be on life support.

Gingrich, too, has remained in the race for two simple reasons: Sheldon and Miriam Adelson, the Las Vegas billionaires who have put over $11 million into the Newt Gingrich-supporting super PAC Winning Our Future. Two $5 million checks arrived conveniently before and after the South Carolina primary. Reports just two weeks ago indicated that another "big" check similar to those two had arrived, though the exact amount was not yet disclosed.

The center reports that Gingrich has spent over $16 million, Santorum $5.9 million, Perry $4 million (before he dropped out), and Ron Paul $3.1 million.

[Read the U.S. News debate: Are Super PACs Harming U.S. Politics?]

And then there is America's Crossroads, the Karl Rove group, which is already into this race for over $23.5 million, with attack ads against President Obama. Priorities USA, by contrast, has raised about $4.5 million to support Barack Obama. The Republicans right now are burying the Democrats with these mountains of cash.

One big caveat with all these reportable numbers is that many of the super PACs also have so-called non-profits (501-c-4 organizations as designated by the IRS code). These groups funnel money into the PACs and cover overhead costs, and the donations are not reportable. This is another very big loophole. A loophole the Koch brothers are using to their heart's content. So, the numbers spent are a great deal larger than even the $130 million reported thus far.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the 2012 GOP hopefuls.]

The biggest joke, of course, is that these groups are not coordinating with the campaigns and are somehow disengaged from the candidate's operations. To paraphrase from the movie Casablanca, "I am shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on here!" Many of the candidate's past aides and consultants are running the super PACs.

They are locked together at the hip and everyone knows it. The Romney-supporting super PAC even ran an ad almost identical to one the Romney campaign had used four years ago. They claimed to have purchased the footage.

The very notion that there is a "firewall" between the campaigns and the super PACs does not come close to passing the laugh test. If there is a "firewall," it is made of cellophane and everyone knows it.

My advice: Buckle your seatbelts, the millionaires and billionaires are going to play for keeps this year and your TV and mailboxes will be jam-packed with negative ads.

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