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Super PACs haven't become the bogeyman many feared


A 2010 Supreme Court decision was supposed to herald a new era of special interests' influence in elections, giving rise to shadowy outside spending groups -- "super PACs" -- that could take advantage of unlimited corporate campaign spending.

President Barack Obama and other Democrats openly fretted that the court's 2010 "Citizens United" ruling, which struck down limits on corporate political spending, would allow big business to marshal their resources to bend the law to suit their own purposes.

But with just less than two weeks until the election, super PACs have hardly been the overt bogeyman many political observers had feared. They're plenty influential --  but they’ve become part of the DNA of American politics by operating like para-campaigns for Obama and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney.

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Super PACs' influence over campaigns hasn’t been quite as Obama and other Democrats first warned.

“Corporate lobbyists will be able to tell members of Congress if they don’t vote the right way, they will face an onslaught of negative ads in their next campaign,” Obama said in 2010 comments pushing for Congress to adopt the DISCLOSE Act, which would have required more disclosure for donations to these organizations.

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Rather, super PACs -- and the seasoned political professionals who run such groups -- have stepped forward to assume and bolster some of the traditional functions that might otherwise fall to candidates themselves. Super PACs have hardly been able to dictate the terms of the election, but their absence might have otherwise meant dire straits for candidates who benefited from their spending, primarily on television ads.

“The outside group can serve the purpose of providing cover to the challenger while the incumbent attempts to define the challenger with dramatically lopsided resources,” said Jonathan Collegio, the communications director for American Crossroads, one of the largest and most influential Republican super PACs.

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American Bridge 21st Century, a Democratic Super PAC devoted solely to opposition research. Opposition researchers find the dirt on presidential candidates that turns into the mud that is slung throughout the campaign season.

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In the presidential campaign and a slew of House and Senate races across the country, super PACs have served varying purposes. They have helped prop up candidates whose own bank accounts are lacking, or have done the dirty work against an opponent that a candidate’s campaign might not be able to execute.

“Between Crossroads and the Chamber and all of those groups, they’ve done a lot in a lot of our states,” said one Democrat familiar with the party’s Senate campaign efforts. “They’ve probably kept their Republican candidates afloat in a couple of instances.”

Super PACs and the battle for the White House

In a similar manner, Romney was the beneficiary of super PAC support at crucial points in his campaign for president. During the Republican primary, a super PAC founded by former aides -- Restore Our Future -- was able to overwhelm Romney’s opposition with millions’ worth of television ads pillorying Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum.

And after Romney emerged from that primary, bloodied from the process and with relatively depleted bank accounts, Restore Our Future and Crossroads were able to offer him support on the airwaves -- stepping forth as a kind of surrogate for the GOP nominee in the absence of a more robust campaign effort.

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In essence, no action or advertisement made by Romney or Obama has gone unanswered. That means no super PAC has been able to dominate the general election, though the countervailing advertising has contributed to a kind of Cold War in politics; each side keeps accelerating its spending, partly for fear of falling behind the other side.

That sentiment motivated Obama’s own flip-flop toward super PACs earlier this year, when his campaign dropped its objections toward the groups and embraced Priorities USA, a supportive super PAC founded by former Obama aides.

“With so much at stake, we can't allow for two sets of rules in this election whereby the Republican nominee is the beneficiary of unlimited spending and Democrats unilaterally disarm,” Obama campaign manager Jim Messina wrote in his Feb. 6 missive to Democrats explaining the reversal.

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To that end, the pro-Obama super PAC Priorities USA has spent $52.7 million on the general election, according to NBC News ad-tracking sources, $35.7 million of which has been spent following the Democratic National Convention. Restore Our Future, by contrast, has spent $73 million on the general election, $34.8 of which came after the Republican convention, when Romney got access to the pool of general election funds he had built, but had been unable to access.

A series of other super PACs have stepped forward to spend millions more on both candidates’ behalf.

Super PACs and downballot races

It might be that super PACs’ effect are more pronounced in races downballot, where finances and organization can be more uneven between House and Senate candidates.

House Majority PAC, a Democratic super PAC dedicated to electing members of the House, was able to coordinate with other progressive groups and pool resources and research in a targeted way.

“One of the ways we’ve been effective is helping to coordinate efforts from a whole host of progressive groups that have traditionally been involved in electoral politics,” said Andy Stone, the group’s communications director. “House Majority PAC has worked to efficiently and effectively use the resources that we have to make a difference in House races, and make sure what happened in 2010 doesn’t happen again -- where House Democrats were just overwhelmed by the last minute by outside money.”

But there are also limits to what super PACs can accomplish.

Paul Lindsay, the communications director for the National Republican Congressional Committee, said the NRCC appreciates its outside supporters but has tried to lead the way with its own spending.

“We’ve always worked under the premise that we can only control what is in our organization and capacity,” he said.

“Candidates matter,” said the Senate Democratic operative, echoing that sentiment. “Super PACs can only do so much.”

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That principle extends to the presidential election, as well. Collegio of American Crossroads argued that it’s up to candidates -- not their supportive super PACs -- to close the deal with voters.

“Ultimately, outside groups that can’t coordinate are far more effective at making the case against candidates than at making the case for candidates,” he said. “A candidate must push himself or herself over the finish line with their own message and identity.”