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Super PACs: FEC report sheds light on powerful influence of a few big donors

Reports filed with the Federal Election Commission give a detailed account of how unlimited donations are affecting the 2012 presidential race.

Mogul Sheldon Adelson

The advent of super PACs has allowed a few hundred political donors — many from finance, energy, real estate, or gambling — to emerge as a powerful force in the 2012 presidential race by becoming the primary funders of negative ad campaigns.

Reports filed with the Federal Election Commission on Tuesday give the first detailed account of how unlimited individual, corporate, and union donations are affecting the 2012 presidential race.

While individuals are limited to $2,500 contributions to candidate campaigns, key checks for the fledgling super PACs came in $250,000, $500,000, or $1 million increments, totaling $47.8 million in 2011, according to the FEC.

But what’s most striking in the FEC disclosures is how few donors are actually behind super PACs out to promote or tear down individual candidates.

“Very few donations and huge amounts of money — that’s the pattern of super PACs,” says Bill Allison, a senior analyst with the Sunlight Foundation, a watchdog group in Washington that tracks super PACS and advocates for transparency.

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While banned from coordinating with the candidates they back, super PACs — a new breed of political action committees enabled by recent court decisions to spend unlimited funds on behalf of, or in opposition to, candidates — have become the dark arm of the GOP primary race, taking on much of the negative campaigning and giving candidates plausible deniability for the blowback.

A small group of wealthy donors has already played a decisive role in the GOP presidential primary, analysts say, and could also help offset a powerful White House advantage in campaign fundraising for the general election in November.

To date, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has been the main beneficiary of unlimited corporate giving. Restore Our Future, Inc., a super PAC backing Romney, picked up more than $30 million in contributions in 2011, mainly from financial industry executives and hedge-fund managers. Restore Our Future, Inc. spent $17.5 million to date, mainly on television ads attacking former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Winning Our Future, a super PAC supporting Mr. Gingrich, raised $2.08 million through 2011, nearly half from the daughter and son-in-law of Las Vegas casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson. In January, after the FEC’s reporting window, Mr. Adelson and his wife, Miriam, gave Winning Our Future two $5 million checks — and the capacity to fight on in South Carolina and Florida‘s high-cost media markets.

Other nuggets mined from the FEC report:

• The Red White and Blue Fund, backing former Sen. Rick Santorum, raised $764,000 in 2011, backed mainly by mutual fund manager Foster Friess ($331,000).

• Make US Great Again, a super PAC supporting Texas Gov. Rick Perry, raised $5.3 million, mainly from energy company executives. After giving $1 million to Governor Perry’s super PAC, Dallas billionaire Harold Simmons gave $500,000 to Winning Our Future, supporting Gingrich. Perry suspended his campaign on Jan. 19, after dismal showings in the polls and early primaries.

• Our Destiny PAC, a super PAC supporting former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who withdrew from the race on Jan. 16, had received 70 percent of its funding from the candidate’s father, Jon Huntsman Sr., executive chairman of the Huntsman Corporation ($1.9 million). Our Destiny PAC spent $2.5 million on Mr. Huntsman’s behalf.

• GOP hopeful Ron Paul is backed by three super PACs — Endorse Liberty Inc., Santa Rita Super PAC, and Revolution PAC — which have spent $3.7 million supporting his campaign. Venture capitalist Peter Thiel, a founder of PayPal, is the leading donor at $900,000.

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• Super PACs supporting President Obama, together, raised $3.1 million in the second half of 2011. By contrast, super PACs attacking the president, such as American Crossroads and FreedomWorks for America, report raising $20.3 million over the same period.

In a straight race for individual campaign contributions, limited by law to $2,500 per donor per election, Mr. Obama vastly outpaces the GOP field. The Obama campaign reports raising nearly $130 million in 2011, compared with $56.9 million raised by the Romney campaign, the top GOP fundraiser.

But a wildcard in the 2012 race is how outside super PACs could tip that balance by giving anti-Obama groups access to unlimited individual and corporate contributions. In GOP presidential primary races to date, spending by outside groups in support of candidates has been decisive, analysts are saying.

New FEC filings and advertising data confirm what many GOP candidates have been saying since Iowa — that outside groups are dominating the airwaves. Super PACs spent $23.5 million on television ads, which were overwhelmingly negative, while candidates themselves spent $20.7 million.

“In the first presidential election cycle following the Supreme Court‘s landmark decision in Citizens United v. FEC, interest group involvement in the presidential air war has skyrocketed from 3 percent of all ads aired in the 2008 Republican nomination race to nearly half (44 percent) of all airings,” concludes a Jan. 30 report by the Wesleyan Media Project, which tracks campaign ads.

Super PAC money gave Romney a decisive edge in the ad wars. Pro-Romney independent expenditures, mainly from Restore Our Future, accounted for $16.5 million in negative ads directed against Gingrich, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

A battering of negative ads, especially from Restore Our Future, drove down Gingrich poll numbers in the Iowa caucuses. Gingrich’s super PAC fought back with a 27-minute attack savaging Romney’s business experience, which helped Gingrich to a come-from-behind win in South Carolina.

“Negative ads work,” says Stuart Rothenberg, of the Rothenberg Political Report in Washington. “It’s a lot easier for outside groups to go negative than it is for the candidate.”

In the last two weeks of the GOP Florida primary race, the dueling super PACs spent $8.5 million on negative ads: Winning Our Future spent $2.5 million to attack Romney, and Restore Our Future spent $6.5 million to attack Gingrich, according to data from the FEC the Center for Responsive Politics.

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“I spent much of my academic career telling reporters, ‘Relax, this is not the most negative campaign ever,” said Ken Goldstein, president of the Campaign Media Analysis Group, in an interview with CNN. “Well, this IS the most negative campaign ever.”