War Chest 2012: PACs Funnel $100 Million into Campaigns

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Editor's note: Citydesk will be regularly tracking campaign war chests, local and national, as we follow donations to candidates for the White House, U.S. Congress and the Idaho Statehouse.

Campaign spending by political action committees and super PACs has already surpassed expenditures made by candidates themselves in the 2012 presidential race, according to Federal Election Commission data.

The FEC reports just over $89 million in candidate expenditures and more than $104 million in spending by prominent PACs.

And while contributions made to candidates are subject to strict FEC rules and a $2,500 per-election maximum, contributions to PACs have few restrictions and can consist of limitless amounts. Already in 2012, top PAC contributors have funneled donations as large as $15 million to the campaigns of President Barack Obama and GOP challenger Mitt Romney, 60 times the maximum contribution allowed for a presidential candidate.

In effect, so-called Super PACs were born in 2010, following the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which said the government cannot limit the amount of money spent by corporations or unions to support or criticize candidates. A similar high court decision in SpeechNow.org v. Federal Election Commission allowed political committees to accept donations of any size, as long as their spending was not coordinated with, or directed by, an individual candidate’s campaign.

However, the many different interpretations of coordinating with candidates render the restriction nearly nonexistent. Candidate-specific super PACs are now allowed, provided the action committees remain independent from the candidates themselves. Simply put, as long as candidates and super PACs don’t discuss with one another the specifics of super PAC spending, almost anything goes. Candidates can endorse certain super PACs and help them fundraise, even soliciting PAC donations from their supporters, just so long they don’t specifically ask for donations exceeding the FEC limit for candidate contributions.

Pro-Romney Super PAC Restore Our Future is currently the highest spending PAC in the nation, with more than $46 million in reported expenditures. Priorities USA Action, a super PAC in support of President Barack Obama, has spent nearly $10 million so far. FEC data shows that PAC spending more than tripled from 2008 to 2010, the most recent years that data is available.

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