In the gusher of super PACs, confusion reigns
Money flying in campaigning's newest frontier
This story was originally published by ProPublica.
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Sure, there's the GOP symbol, but the real elephant in the room at any of the Republican debates since December has been the super PAC, the turbocharged political action committee able to raise and spend unlimited amounts of money on political ads — as long as that spending isn't coordinated with a particular campaign.
Jon Huntsman's campaign would probably not have lasted as long as it did without Our Destiny. Now that Rick Perry is out of the race, throwing his support to Gingrich, the real question is what will happen to the war chest of Make Us Great Again.
But those are just the super PACs you've already heard about — the ones that candidates grouse about at debates, with Romney calling one Winning Our Future ad that portrayed him as a corporate raider "probably the biggest hoax since Bigfoot."
As South Carolina primary revs up, it's worth taking a step back and considering all the confusing names, and all the confusing money that might be spent in the coming months. It's also worth considering how we got to this new frontier, which even campaign operatives say is messy: Two years ago Saturday, the Supreme Court, in its ruling on Citizens United v. FEC, cracked open the door for super PACs. Two months later, a federal appeal court's decision in Speechnow.org v. FEC threw it wide open. Now, registering as a super PAC is as simple as sending a letter and a form to the FEC.
So far, at least 283 super PACs have registered, although 60 are run by one Florida man, Josue Larose, and seem to serve no other purpose but piling up paperwork for the FEC. And so far, super PACs have spent more than $29 million on the presidential race. (You can follow the money with our PAC Track application.) Although it's not yet clear how that compares with overall spending by the candidates themselves, reports indicated that super PAC spending in Iowa outstripped the candidates' by 2-to-1, said Paul Ryan, a lawyer with the Campaign Legal Center.
More spending, likely the most ever in an election season, is on the horizon. And even though some super PACs seem to be parodies (like comedian Stephen Colbert's Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow, which has probably done more to deliver "super PAC" into the American lexicon than any politician), the groups insist they are real.
"There's all kinds of games going on," said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, a nonprofit pushing to rein in super PACs. "Some group has put up a website telling you how to get around disclosure. Look, we have huge problems on our hands, and we get to celebrate the cause of many of these problems on Jan. 21, the second anniversary of the Citizens United decision. We have to deal with them as best we can."
Here's a rundown of some new super PACs and examples of how confusing things can get:
The Patriot Super PAC, which registered with the FEC on Tuesday, boasts a website promising to be the "future home of something quite cool." It will work to defeat President Barack Obama, but it shouldn't be confused with the conservative Patriot PAC, which promises to be the "point of the spear" and asks people to sign a petition without providing the text. Nor should either be mistaken for the Patriot Majority USA PAC, which supports Senate Democrats.
Protecting Our Vote PAC registered on Jan. 13, with one of the best signatures in any super PAC filing. Its mission is unclear: The website simply says, Protecting Our Vote PAC. American Sunrise registered as a super PAC the same day, organized in part by Lora Haggard, the former chief financial officer for onetime Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards.
Some people registering super PACs appear to be confused themselves. Patricia McBride of Wasco, Calif., registered Citizens Fireup Super PAC on Jan. 9 to support or oppose Obama but neglected to say which angle she'll take. McBride also wrote that she wished to establish the super PAC as a (c4), which is shorthand for a 501(c)4, the IRS code for a social-welfare nonprofit. Although 501(c)4s are allowed to make certain political expenditures, they are not allowed to be super PACs. Regardless, the FEC appears to have registered the group.
On Jan. 5, a super PAC called "a SuperPAC" registered with the FEC, with a website at www.asuperpacforhire.com, which includes a way to donate. It also features the explanation: "Have you ever wanted a message to get out to the voting public about a candidate running for federal office but didn't want the mess of production, compliance, or disclosure paperwork? a SuperPAC wants to get the TRUTH out too."
Treasurer Matthew Balazik of Frederick, Md., said the group is real. Ads on its website, which proclaim "Paid for by a SuperPAC," target Democrats who've turned Republican.
"We're pretty conservative around here," Balazik wrote in response to an email. "We believe fundamentally that you should be able to speak publically (sic) and anonymously so long as you do not violate anyone else's rights."
When asked if anyone had tried to hire a SuperPAC super PAC, Balazik wrote simply: "That's a good question."
The previous week, Cain Connections PAC registered as a super PAC, with no website, days after Herman Cain had dropped out of the Republican race. Its mission is unclear.
Earlier in December, the American Crosswinds PAC— sounding remarkably similar to the Republican fundraising juggernaut American Crossroads super PAC — registered as a super PAC, although it has no website and no email address.
On Dec. 1, Feel the Heat PAC registered from a Washington P.O. box — just like many real super PACs. Its website never got up and running, and reception must have been cool: On Tuesday, it terminated itself. The Restore Trust PAC, started by the same person, had similar issues.
Also in December, Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Today — clearly a play on Colbert's super PAC, Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow — registered with the FEC. On Dec. 12, it announced it wanted to be a super PAC, with a typo: "Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Toady."
Todd Bailey, who formed the super PAC, said it's working for the Occupy Wall Street movement, which has decried the Citizens Unitedruling and the effect of money on politics. In other words, a joke on a satire is operating in earnest, apparently under the theory, "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em."
"There's a tool that's been created that everyone's using," Bailey said. "You have to make a choice. Either stand on sidelines, or get in the game and use a tool that you're really not comfortable with."