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Majority PAC is a prime example of the groups that have formed in the wake of Citizens United. As a super PAC, Majority is free to accept and spend unlimited amounts of money expressly supporting or opposing a candidate for federal office. Majority is backed by a host of unions, lobbyists and other political action committees (yes, PACs donate to super PACs, super PACs donate to PACs, etc.) It has spent more than $13 million on independent expenditures supporting Democrats or opposing Republicans, has contributed an additional $14.6 million to various candidates and had $1.2 million on hand at the end of August. One of Majority's top donors is Working for Working Americans, a Las Vegas-based super PAC tied to trade unions.
Many of the super PACs in 2012 are run by political pros, Allison says, or people with connections to either the Democratic Party or the GOP. They know what type of influence works, and how best to achieve the goals that attract wealthy donors. "Some of the bigger super PACS are almost like shadow parties. But the donors, especially people who are writing checks for $10 million like the Sheldon Adelsons of the world and the Harold Simmonses, they're conferring with these folks and helping to push the strategy and the message."
Super PACs are technically forbidden from coordinating directly with a candidate's campaign. But these political pros are often in the same place at the same time, such as the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., in August. Journalists, analysts and pundits alike speculate that coordination does in fact occur behind closed doors.
Majority PAC's end-game isn't hard to figure out: In a year when conservatives are gunning for a Republican majority in the Senate, liberal super PACs are fighting to hold the line. Tester's seat is one of the most contested in the country. A poll released last week from the Global Strategy Group shows Tester with a narrow 2-point lead against Rehberg. In Montana, Majority's efforts at least offset the work of conservative super PAC Freedomworks for America, which has spent thousands undercutting Tester's re-election bid.
Super PACs have been the focus of considerable debate in the wake of Citizens United. However, the groups are far more transparent than other players in the campaign game. Super PACs are required to disclose independent expenditures to the FEC, and must file monthly reports listing donors and donation amounts. As a result, they've attracted support from wealthy mega-donors like casino mogul Sheldon Adelson and conservative billionaire Harold Simmons, who don't appear to mind having their names associated with big money contributions.
According to a recent CBS News story, 26 individuals and companies have donated more than $1 million a piece to Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney's Restore Our Future super PAC. Last week, left-wing philanthropist and mega-donor George Soros, who opposed the Citizens United decision and has spent years decrying super PACs, entered the cycle with an eleventh-hour $1 million donation to the pro-Obama Priorities USA Action. Soros also committed a combined $500,000 to the House Majority and Senate Majority PACs.
Super PACs are positioned to make an impact long after the Nov. 6 election. In exchange for unleashing relentless attack ads against candidates they oppose and clearing the field for candidates they favor, they expect a return on their investment.
"They can hire a lobbyist to go in and talk to members of Congress or their donors can, and go, 'We're the guys who dumped a million dollars on you in the waning days of your race, and you wouldn't be here without us. Here's what we want,'" Allison says. "You have these guys with these campaign finance bazookas, and all their donors have interests in Washington. That's what's so worrying."
In Montana, the super PAC craze hasn't been nearly as prominent as it has in other races across the country. Spending will pick up in the next month, and as super PACs drain the millions in their coffers, those who haven't bought into the state yet might be tempted to do so. But so far, the flurry of activity here stems from what Allison considers a more insidious pool of political influence.
The rise of the nonprofits
Perhaps the biggest player in Montana's Senate race so far is Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies, the 501(c)(4) co-founded by GOP strategists Karl Rove and Ed Gillespie. One of the group's ads claims Tester is the number one recipient of lobbyist donations in Congress. Another accuses the incumbent of voting to raise taxes on small businesses and families, and once again ties him to the passage of the Affordable Care Act. All three attacks are identical to ads and press releases paid for by Rehberg's campaign.
In the past month, Crossroads has disclosed $1.4 million in independent expenditures directly opposing Tester—the cost of production and air time for two ads saying "Vote no on Jon Tester for U.S. Senate." But ad totals beyond that are nearly impossible to calculate. For over a year, Crossroads has dodged the FEC's disclosure regulations by running "issue advocacy" ads, or ads that don't directly support or oppose a political candidate. Instead, Crossroads has encouraged voters to "Call Jon Tester" and "Tell him: no more reckless spending, no more new taxes, no more blank checks."
Crossroads flirted with the line of "issue advocacy" in a late August ad that was clearly meant to condemn a second Tester term. The ad featured images of a little girl eating an orange and claimed that the nation's debt has increased "$3.5 billion every single day since Jon Tester arrived in the U.S. Senate." Crossroads cited Tester's support for the stimulus bill, his support for the ACA and his votes "to raise the debt limit." The ad ended with the line "Tell Tester: cut the debt," and asked viewers to "Support the New Majority Agenda."
Rough estimates based on Crossroads press releases received by the Independent and on data gathered by the Sunlight Foundation put Crossroads' spending in Montana's Senate race at close to $4 million. The New York Times and Huffington Post reported in June that Sheldon Adelson has donated at least $10 million to Crossroads this year—a fraction of the $71 million in political contributions he's doled out to conservative groups.
These "social welfare" nonprofits have risen to prominence since 2008, trumping super PACs as the real heavy hitters in contemporary campaigns. According to a ProPublica report in August, Crossroads and the Koch brothers' Americans for Prosperity have spent nearly as much as every super PAC in the country combined. Adelson's own Republican Jewish Coalition has spent big too, though according to ProPublica, the group told the IRS at its founding in 1985 that it would not engage in politics. These groups have executed all this spending without having to disclose any of their donors, to either the FEC or the IRS. It's here, Allison believes, that corporations have truly taken advantage of Citizens United.
"After Citizens United, groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have much wider latitude in terms of what they can do," Allison says. "If you're a corporation that's trying to avoid alienating half of your customers, it makes more sense to do things through a group that doesn't have to disclose you as a donor and can take the heat for the ad."
A study conducted in 2010 by the D.C.-based nonprofit Public Citizen revealed a startling development in political 501(c)(4) activity. In 2004, nearly 98 percent of independent groups dropping money on electioneering communication disclosed their donors. That figure dropped to 50 percent in 2008, and plummeted to 32 percent in 2010 following the Citizens United ruling. Craig Holman, a government affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen and one of the leaders of the study, says he expects the level of disclosure to fall even further by the end of the 2012 cycle.
"We saw a 427-percent increase in outside spending in the 2010 elections over the previous congressional election," Holman says. "And that was when corporations were sort of dipping their toes in the campaign waters, saying, 'Can we really do this? Can we really get away with it without any disclosure?' Now they know they can get away with it, and they know how to do it."
Crossroads is a perfect case study in the big donors' attraction to anonymity. Rove originally founded American Crossroads as a super PAC in the hopes of netting huge corporate contributions. The plan didn't pan out. Rove then established the branch 501(c)(4) Crossroads GPS and interest turned around.
"That's become the big money machine for Karl Rove," Holman says. "Crossroads is a very telling story here."