WASHINGTON — Independent organizations armed with blurry rules allowing for unlimited donations have dumped millions of dollars into this year’s presidential election under a new system that permits extremely wealthy individuals and corporations to bombard the airwaves with campaign ads.
And those involved say there’s far more to come.
Dubbed super-PACs, these organizations — including at least two linked to the Dayton area — have a growing influence on who will be the next president of the United States.
Among the groups are American Bridge 21st Century, which tracks and does opposition research on Republican candidates. Its president is Rodell Mollineau, a 35-year-old University of Dayton graduate who launched his political career in the late 1990s as president of the UD student body.
Then there is Citizens for a Working America, an organization that spent nearly half a million dollars on television ads for Mitt Romney in the days before the Iowa caucuses.
Among those involved in that group is Jim Nathanson, a Dayton political consultant who was political director for the Republican National Committee in the early 1990s.
The two organizations’ purposes and ideologies are vastly different, and neither has spent the sort of money that other super-PACs, such as the Romney-supporting Restore our Future, have. Like the others, though, they are taking advantage of a 2010 Supreme Court decision that cleared the way for corporations, labor unions and other groups to make unlimited donations to groups that would then advertise on behalf of their favorite candidates.
No one doubts the new rules have the potential to be “game-changers” in the 2012 race.
“The bottom line is these organizations now are getting set up in unprecedented numbers because they’ve become the preferred vehicle for a lot of political expression,” said Nathanson who is on the board of a 501(c) 4, or tax-exempt organization, supporting Citizens for a Working America. “They’re everywhere now.”
With that omnipresence, cautions Fred Wertheimer, of the good-government group Democracy 21, is potential for corruption.
“They distort the elections because a relatively few people have magnified influence, ” Wertheimer said.
According to the Center for Responsive Politics, 296 super-PACs have raised some $32 million so far this election cycle. But they’ve spent at least $42 million — largely on campaign ads supporting or opposing various Republican presidential candidates. Those numbers will be updated Jan. 31, when the many of the groups are required to file updated reports with the Federal Election Commission.
Of the 296, only 31 have spent money on TV ads or other elections communications so far this election cycle, meaning many are likely holding their fire for the general election or for the various congressional races scheduled for 2012. The race between Sen. Sherrod Brown, a Democrat, and Republican Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel may be a prime example: So far, outside groups supporting Republicans have sunk $81,434 into that race, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Outside Democratic-leaning groups have yet to spend on the race, according to the center’s analysis.
“I think the super-PAC activity in the ongoing Republican presidential primary offers just a hint of what we’re going to see in the general election,” said Paul Ryan of the Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan organization focused on campaign finance. “Super-PACs will likely play a hugely influential role in House and Senate races throughout the country. They’ll undoubtedly play an enormous role in the presidential general election.”
While the new rules allow a few wealthy supporters to tip the financial balance in a race, a more ominous consequence is that corporations are permitted to make unlimited contributions under the 2010 Supreme Court ruling, Ryan said.
“The only reasons corporations get into elections is to advocate or help their own bottom line,” he said. “To me, that’s far more troubling than a longtime rich friend of the candidate giving the candidate some money.”
Unlike traditional PACs, super-PACs cannot donate money directly to political candidates. And they’re barred from directly coordinating with a candidate or campaign. Comedians Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert have had great fun lampooning that particular requirement.
While they can’t coordinate or plan strategies with a candidate, super-PACS can buy ads supporting or opposing a candidate. For example: Newt Gingrich’s campaign was bolstered by Sheldon and Miriam Adelson, a wealthy Las Vegas couple, who have given some $10 million into “Winning our Future,” a super-PAC supporting him.
While millions have already been spent in the early Republican primary states Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, the influence of outside groups is really on display in Florida, which has its winner-take-all primary on Tuesday.
In the first few primary states, candidates had to rely on a mix of fundraising and retail politicking — shaking hands, kissing babies. And there was plenty of time: Some candidates, such as former Sen. Rick Santorum, spent months in Iowa winning over voters.
But because of the calendar and size of a state like Florida, candidates have days, not months, to win over voters. TV ads, said Kathy Kiely of the nonprofit Sunlight Foundation, become even more important now.
“You can either raise money or go shake hands,” Kiely said. “But if someone writes you a $10 million check, that gives you a lot more time to shake hands.”
While candidates are ordered not to coordinate with these committees, it’s a blurry barrier, Kiely said.
For example: While candidates themselves are only permitted to ask for a maximum $5,000 for their campaigns, there’s no rule barring them from showing up at super-PAC fundraisers, where donors can dump an unlimited amount into the super-PAC’s coffers. As long as the super-PAC doesn’t coordinate with the candidate or campaign, such an arrangement is considered acceptable.
Associated with many super-PACs are nonprofit 501(c)4 organizations that can spend up to 49 percent of their money for political purposes.
Republican consultant Karl Rove pioneered the tactic, establishing the super-PAC American Crossroads with contributions to the nonprofit Crossroads GPS (Grassroots Policy Strategies). The catch: Donors to super-PACs are disclosed, but there is no rule requiring donors to 501(c)4s to be.
The process has led to tricky scenarios. In 2010, the first year such groups emerged, Citizens for a Working America weighed in on a South Carolina congressional election. Nathanson was not yet affiliated with the group, which listed one donor: a McLean, Va., 501(c)4 that gave the super-PAC a total of $265,000.
The exchange was perfectly legal — but troubling to Ryan of the Campaign Legal Center. He worries that the rules enable super-PACs to engage in a “shell game” where they disclose donations from 501(c)4s without really saying who gave the money. He calls it “legalized money laundering.”
“If all that is disclosed by the super-PAC is that it is the recipient of a huge contribution from some innocuous-sounding organization that in turn does not disclose its donors, then voters have no meaningful information about the source of those funds,” he said.
Citizens for a Working America originally backed Michele Bachmann before switching to endorse Romney, though Nathanson said he’s personally supported Romney throughout the campaign.
He said the new process allows a wider range of organizations and groups to participate in the political process. Democrats and Republicans alike are taking advantage of the change, he said.
“I think by and large it’s important to maintain political free speech,” he said. “I err on the side of free speech whenever possible.”
Nathanson predicts the end result will decentralize the political process, giving outside groups a chance to weigh in just as much as the candidates and parties themselves do – and possibly more.
“Politics has traditionally been an activity of candidates and parties,” he said. “This has increased the range of individuals that can be effectively involved....these groups now can do the things candidates traditionally relied on political parties to do.”
On the other end of the ideological spectrum is Mollineau, a New Jersey native who graduated from the University of Dayton in the late 1990s (and briefly worked at the Dayton Daily News as a sports editorial assistant). He runs a super-PAC – with an affiliated 501c(4) – that tracks and does opposition research on Republican candidates.
The organization was founded by David Brock of Media Matters for America, a group that claims to monitor “conservative misinformation” in the media.
In a high-rise D.C. office building near Chinatown, Mollineau, a former communications director for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, supervises a staff of 35. An additional 16 employees serve as ‘trackers,” following Republicans around the field with video cameras to record their speeches and hold them accountable for their words.
The group occasionally nabs some “gotchas” as well. When Republican Jon Bruning of Nebraska compared welfare recipients to raccoons, the organization’s trackers were there – and the story went viral.
“We’re service providers,” Mollineau said of his work, saying they send out information and footage that other groups can use — though they also can create their own ads.
Brock, Mollineau said, decided to launch the organization after devastating Democratic congressional losses in 2010. He felt many of those losses occurred in part because Republicans were using the super-PACs while Democrats had yet to.
“You have to play with the rules you’re given,” he said. “You can whine at the refs all you want, but if your opponent has a tactical advantage that you choose not to partake in, you’re doing your cause a disservice.”
Dayton Daily News reporter Jeremy Kelley contributed to this report.
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