Super PACS: the challenge

Super PACS: the challenge

January 30th, 2012 in Opinion Times

Mitt Romney passed Newt Gingrich in the polls a few days ago and appeared headed toward a victory tomorrow in the Florida Republican presidential primary. As this was written, though, Gingrich - or to be technically correct, the unregulated super PAC that favors him - was just cranking up another blitz of advertising, a variation on the sort that he rode to victory in South Carolina. So the outcome tomorrow remains in question.

The more interesting question is how, precisely, "the super PAC that favors Gingrich" got the money to keep up the chase in the Florida race? If you have been keeping track of political earthquakes, surely you know.

The super PAC that favors Gingrich, Winning Our Future, received a $5 million check last week from Dr. Miriam Adelson, the wife of Sheldon Adelson, a Las Vegas casino czar ranked as the eighth-wealthiest American, and an old friend, supporter and patron of Gingrich.

His wife's gift was the second $5 million check from the Adelsons to the super PAC that favors Gingrich: The first $5 million was given by Adelson himself just two weeks earlier. His was the check that underwrote the negative blitz of advertising that propelled Gingrich to victory in the South Carolina primary, reviving his campaign after dismal finishes in the first two primaries.

The Adelsons' quick $10 million checks to a sagging candidate are not the only ones from super-rich patrons ready and willing to use their wealth to promote the candidate into office. Romney benefits from two well-endowed super PACS that favor him. They carried him in Iowa and kept his campaign competitive in South Carolina. These totally unregulated and unaccountable "pro-Romney forces" have bought nearly $14 million in advertising Florida.

The ratios of super PAC spending versus traditional campaign spending directed by the candidates has been stunning. Super PAC spending accounted for more than two-thirds of the record $12.5 million spent in Iowa. Bypassing the media desert of New Hampshire, they plunged into South Carolina, spending more than $8 million, and outspending the candidates' own campaigns by $2 million. And they're rocked those numbers in Florida.

The trouble with their spending is obvious. It shows how the rapid rise of super PAC spending in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court's lamentable Citizens United ruling, has fundamentally changed the campaign landscape. The ruling wrongly allowed ultra-wealthy, anonymous and totally unaccountable donors and corporations to steer the direction of presidential politics so long as they do not "coordinate" their spending with candidates, and thus to seize control of the destinies of the candidates - and ultimately of the nation's leadership choices.

What is happening in the primaries is just a warm-up. The most vicious attacks, distortions and smears will come after the primaries, when super PACS that favor both the Republican and Democratic candidates will swell and occupy the media landscape with corollary campaigns of their own running into hundreds of millions of dollars.

It's too late to rein in the super PACS for this year's election, but Common Cause, a nonpartisan government watchdog, has a plan to push back against the Citizens United ruling for the future. It is mounting a 50-state drive to pass a constitutional amendment to reverse the ruling, and promote fair elections where citizens, not rich special interests, determine the outcome. See for more information. As the presidential campaign gathers steam, the Common Cause campaign will come to be seen, if we think to reach for it, as a lifeline for the rescue of our democracy.