-by Paul Blumenthal
September 26, 2011- WASHINGTON — In the span of a week in September, two independent political committees announced unheard-of fundraising plans for the coming campaign season. The Karl Rove-linked American Crossroads, along with its sister nonprofit, Crossroads GPS, announced a plan to raise and spend $240 million in 2012. Make Us Great Again, a group solely dedicated to electing Texas Gov. Rick Perry the 45th President of the United States, revealed a plan to spend $55 million in the Republican primary alone. Both of these multimillion dollar plans would break all reported records for spending by an independent political committee, and offer a sign of how campaign finance rules have been upended.
The federal system of campaign finance is in the midst of a sea change following the Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (FEC), which undid a host of regulations covering the use of corporate and union money by independent groups in elections. Those independent groups are forming a shadow campaign apparatus fueled by unlimited and often undisclosed contributions, without the same accountability required of political parties or candidates' own political action committees.
American Crossroads and Make Us Great Again represent one of the two new kinds of groups playing in the shadow campaign: super PACs, independent political committees filed with the FEC that can accept unlimited funds from corporations, unions and individuals.
In their debut election cycle in 2010, super PACs, like American Crossroads, spent a combined $65.3 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. This was part of a huge surge in spending by non-party groups, whose spending hit $304 million in 2010, a record for any election cycle — presidential or midterm.
If the fundraising goals of American Crossroads and Make Us Great Again are any indication, the 2012 elections will shatter this record.
Super PACs weren't solely responsible for the surge in outside spending in 2010. Nonprofit groups organized under section 501(c)(4) of the tax code were also finally allowed to spend money on express advocacy — calling for the election or defeat of a candidate — thanks to the Citizens United ruling. Unlike super PACs, these nonprofits, including Crossroads GPS, are not required to disclose the source of their funds.
While overall outside spending surged, undisclosed spending by nonprofits, or "dark money," exploded. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the source of only 51 percent of non-party outside spending was disclosed to the public in 2010.
"In the case of the tax-exempt groups, citizens have absolutely no idea what's going on here," Democracy 21 President Fred Wertheimer, a long-time campaign finance watchdog, explained to HuffPost. "They have no way of knowing how groups are trying to influence their votes."
The explosion of unlimited money and secret money is expected to continue unabated in 2012. It is already taking different forms and creating new headaches for those concerned about the increasing role of money in politics. The new campaign finance system is now a two-tiered one: candidates and parties governed by tight regulations and shadow groups that operate with little to no rules.