WASHINGTON — When a presidential candidate throws in the towel, what can a "super" PAC that supported the campaign spend its money on?
Pretty much anything it wants.
Until now, the super political action committee working in Rick Santorum's favor spent nearly all its cash — more than $4.5 million — on television ads for Santorum. But his departure from the GOP primaries leaves the Red, White and Blue Fund with a foggier mission.
The new phenomenon of super PACs this election cycle also has raised new questions about how, or whether, they should go out of business when their favored candidate bails out. Some have closed down, saying it wouldn't be right to spend donors' money on another cause or candidate.
For super PACs that outlast a presidential candidate, the rules governing them offer possibilities for future spending, including on issues or candidates that have nothing to do with the initial campaigns the PACs were formed to support. One of the few restrictions would be turning over any remaining cash to a campaign, which wouldn't be allowed.
Super PACs have proliferated, thanks in part to federal court rulings that effectively stripped away campaign finance rules and allowed them to accept unlimited and effectively anonymous contributions from wealthy individuals, corporations and others.
Nearly all major presidential candidates had a super PAC in their corner. GOP front-runner Mitt Romney's — called Restore Our Future — has spent at least $35 million on ads that have halted his rivals' momentum.
Still, the political committees rarely stockpile large amounts of cash because they spend it so quickly. Many times, they operate paycheck to paycheck. The group supporting Santorum spent roughly $500,000 per week in recent months even as financial reports showed it began March with less than that amount, or $364,000, in the bank.
The Red, White and Blue Fund has made no clear decision on what's next with Santorum out.
All told, super PACs have spent more than $55 million on the presidential race since last summer, at times eclipsing the ad spending of the very campaigns they support.