1. Florida Politics

Super PACs reshaping 2012 presidential campaign

Published Jan. 27, 2012

By now, you've probably seen the political ad several times. "Think you know Mitt?" a narrator asks. "Think again."

The ad rips Mitt Romney as the inventor of government-run health care and uses old footage of him declaring, "I'm someone who is moderate and my views are progressive."

Appearing days before Florida's Republican presidential primary on Tuesday, the spot was created to benefit Newt Gingrich. Only Gingrich had nothing to do with it, let alone the millions to put it on air.

It's the latest salvo from a "super PAC," the political action committees that are dramatically reshaping campaigns and providing an outsized role for the wealthy, corporations and unions to influence the outcome.

"They're terrible," said political strategist Rick Tyler, an especially startling admission from the man who leads Winning Our Future, the super PAC behind the $6 million anti-Romney TV ad.

Tyler said if he did not act, Gingrich would have been buried by super PACs for other candidates. (He nearly was done in by the pro-Romney Restore Our Future in Iowa and New Hampshire.)

"I'm not going to unilaterally disarm," Tyler said. (Sure enough, Restore Our Future purchased another $5 million in air time, according to records posted Thursday.)

"We didn't make the rules. We don't like the rules. But these are the rules," Tyler said. "I'm hopeful we've learned enough from this wretched experiment to fix it."

Super PACs were unleashed by a landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling two years ago this month that lifted century-old limitations on corporate money in federal elections by allowing businesses and labor unions to spend as much as they want directly in favor or against a candidate.

The only requirement: Super PACs are not allowed to coordinate with the political campaigns they are helping.

But the groups usually have close ties to the candidates. Tyler, for instance, was once an aide to Gingrich. Restore Our Future is dotted with former Romney allies. All the Republican candidates have a PAC working on their behalf. Democrats too, despite protesting how unfair they are.

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As of Thursday, super PACs have spent $42 million on the 2012 elections. In Florida, pro-Romney ads have attacked Rick Santorum for securing budget earmarks and Gingrich as an ally of Nancy Pelosi, the bête noire of conservatives.

A pro-Barack Obama group, Priorities USA Action, teamed with a labor union on a six-figure radio ad accusing Romney of being "two-faced" for trying to appeal to Hispanics while also pushing a hard line on illegal immigrants.

Ron Paul is skipping Florida and its expensive media markets to focus on other states. But that has not stopped the Paul-friendly Endorse Liberty from pumping $1.4 million into Florida for ads.

The whopper came this week when Dr. Miriam Adelson said she was donating $5 million to the pro-Gingrich Winning Our Future, adding to $5 million her husband, casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, had contributed.

They financed ads accusing Romney of being a corporate raider and a moderate masquerading as a conservative. If they were to contribute directly to Gingrich's primary campaign, the Adelsons would be limited to $2,500 a piece.

"This is a classic example of just how dangerous these super PACs are. They really have only one purpose and that is to circumvent existing campaign finance limits," said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, a watchdog group that is trying to get Congress to ban candidate-specific super PACs.

Most donors are hard to track. Disclosure laws allow the PACs to report less frequently or, in some cases, not at all, if the PAC is set up as a tax-exempt "social welfare" organization.

"The voters in Florida, after the polls have closed, will finally get to see who funded these operations through December," said Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks the money.

"Is that helpful? Probably not. It's too little too late. A lot of these use patriotic names that indicate a grass roots movement, but then the whole operation can be funded by a few people."

Gingrich said this week that Adelson simply wanted a president who would "make sure Iranians do not get nuclear weapons."

He claimed not to know anything about the PAC activities "other than what I read in the newspapers."

Only weeks ago Gingrich was bemoaning super PACs as a stain on the process after his lead in Iowa crumbled amid a flood of ads by Romney's allies that said Gingrich had "more baggage than the airlines."

With others doing the work for him, Romney can avoid the perception of dirty campaigning. While he benefited from the attacks, he was publicly saying campaign laws had made a "mockery of our political campaign season" and said the country should "get rid of these super PACs."

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At the heart of the 5-4 Supreme Court decision in Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission was an argument of free speech. Citizens United was a nonprofit group that created a film critical of Hillary Rodham Clinton and challenged a court ruling that it ran afoul of precedents barring corporate spending in favor or against political candidates, including restrictions on "electioneering communications."

Super PACs emerged in the 2010 election and mostly favored Republicans, who were able to capture control of the House. Spending continued through 2011, with ads in Florida and other key states attacking Obama on the economy.

Democrats derided the court decision as monumentally bad and have attempted to pass legislation requiring more disclosure.

"Super PACs are a poisonous element of the campaign finance process," said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of South Florida, who is also chair of the Democratic National Committee. But her party has joined the arms race, too.

"We're not going to allow hundreds of millions of dollars to be spent against us and the president without using the mechanisms that are legally available," she said.

For Priorities USA Action, started by a former Obama aide, that means setting up the PAC in a way that does not require the donors be disclosed — a step Republicans say smacks of hypocrisy.

Steve Grand, a Republican media strategist who works with American Crossroads, a leading super PAC, said, "There's an argument that an arms-length from the candidate is less bad in terms of corruption. If someone was handing that candidate direct contributions, there is going to be an assumption of quid pro quo."

He added: "A super PAC may be able to push the envelope harder than a candidate. But as long as they are not lying and sticking to facts in a way that is persuasive, that's just free speech."

But as negative ads flood the airwaves in Florida this week, voters are expressing disgust and adding to calls for curbs on the super PAC phenomenon.

"We've got too much freedom of speech, I believe," said Joanne Barrett, 69, of Bradenton, one of thousands at a Gingrich rally in Sarasota on Tuesday.

"People are so over this campaign," said an exasperated Barbara Wise, 65.

"I'm not sick of the campaign," said her husband, Ray. "I'm sick of the negativity. I want to hear their ideas. Why are they going after each other? Why aren't they sticking on Obama?"