DENVER (CBS4) – With Florida and its winner-take-all primary now history, we can look back a little. And here’s what we know: The nation’s biggest primary so far was a big money campaign, but the money wasn’t from the campaigns, it was from the super PACS.
The super political action committees are becoming even a larger 800 pound gorilla in the room controlling the political landscape this year. Rest assured you’ll be seeing ads made by them and they are often designed merely to attack.
Florida’s primary comes just as the super PACS are at a reporting deadline and revealing what they take in. It’s well into the tens of millions. The super PAC doing much of the dirty work for Mitt Romney spent over $17 million with more than 90 percent of the money funding attack ads aimed at Newt Gingrich, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
The biggest Gingrich super PAC, Winning Our Future, spent about nine million.
“These outside PACs are actually spending more money than the campaigns themselves,” Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet said.
Bennet should know. His election in 2010 had more money spent by outside groups than any other race in the country. While the wealthy Bennet outspent his Republican opponent Ken Buck nearly three times over in a campaign that cost nearly $15 million, outside groups spent well over twice that.
Super PACS mushroomed after a Supreme Court decision in 2010 known as Citizens United vs. The Federal Elections Commission. It meant individuals, corporations, labor unions and other organizations could give unlimited amounts of money to super PACS.
The super PACS work on behalf of the candidate, but are not allowed to coordinate directly with the campaigns.
Bennet and New Mexico Sen. Tom Udall have proposed a constitutional amendment to, in effect, undo Citizens United.
“We think that they got it wrong,” Bennet said. “We think that the American people want to know who is funding these commercials because they want to be able to make a real judgment about the candidates that they’re trying to support.”
Checking Federal Election Commission records, there are only two super PACS currently registered in Colorado. One is operated by Environment Colorado called the Environment Colorado Action Committee and the other is called Solutions 2012.
Charlie Smith is president of Solutions 2012, a super PAC formed to support Newt Gingrich.
“It’s an organization that’s helping Newt through these early primary states,” Smith said. “Talk to voters, recruit supporters and turn them out for elections.”
Records just reported to the Federal Elections Commission show it took in more than $60,000 last year in donations from private citizens mostly ranging between $250 and $5,000.
“There are certain things that I want to do in the way that I want to support Newt Gingrich that maybe his campaign wouldn’t do. And a lot of people like to know that their money is not just going out into the ether, to be spent in lighting or something like that,” Smith said.
Solutions 2012 has put together web ads it has mounted to its website. So far records show only half of the money spent. While Smith has met Gingrich at a “couple of events years ago,” he says he does not interact with the Gingrich campaign.
“And no, nobody does because there are pretty harsh penalties.”
That is prohibited for super PACs.
There are, however, connections to many. Romney’s biggest super PAC, Restore Our Future, is operated by a former high-ranking campaign official during Romney’s 2008 run for president.
Smith said he’s careful and keeps his distance from the Gingrich campaign.
“I mean there are certain ways you’re allowed to talk with them about fundraising and things but you get really into the weeds there,” Smith said.
Republican Party consultant and former Colorado state party chair Dick Wadhams isn’t fond of the super PACS, even though he’s a well-known brawler when it comes to rough and tumble politics. Wadhams points out how candidates keep their distance … but.
“I can tell you the candidates will not have any official communications with those PACS. But the contradiction to that is these are all friends and supporters who run these Super PACS,” Wadhams said. “His hands are clean. The candidate can say, ‘Well I didn’t have anything to do with that. That’s the Super PAC, and so negative campaigning is actually enhanced by the super PAC.”
Wadhams thinks attempts to restrict money donations to political campaigns, which are limited to $2,500 per individual, per politician, have inevitably led to the super PACs widespread use.
Smith is, of course, an advocate.
“I think for the large part you’re going to see super PACs are expanding the landscape of free speech in America. Citizens United was a court case that took down some barriers to entry for regular people to get involved in the political process and I think that was important,” Smith said.
But you won’t get much agreement from Bennet, even if outside money helped get him elected.
“Colorado is going to be Ground Zero in this election in 2012, and the last thing we want to be watching is a lot of hatchet advertising going in either direction, it doesn’t matter which, without knowing who’s responsible for it,” Bennet said.