by Kim Barker ProPublica
Sure, thereâ€™sthe GOP symbol, but the real elephant in the room at any of the Republicandebates since December has been the super PAC, the turbocharged politicalaction committee able to raise and spend unlimited amounts of money onpolitical ads â€” as long as that spending isnâ€™t coordinated with aparticular campaign.
Jon Huntsmanâ€™scampaign  would probably not have lasted as long asit did without Our Destiny. Now that Rick Perry is out of the race, throwinghis support to Gingrich, the real question is what will happen to the war chestof Make Us Great Again .
But those arejust the super PACs youâ€™ve already heard about â€” the ones that candidatesgrouse about at debates, with Romney calling one Winning Our Future ad thatportrayed him as a corporate raider  â€œprobably the biggest hoax since Bigfoot.â€
As thecountdown continues to the South Carolina primary Saturday, itâ€™s worth taking astep back and considering all the confusing names, and all the confusing moneythat might be spent in the coming months. Itâ€™s also worth considering how wegot to this new frontier, which even campaign operatives say is messy: Twoyears ago on Saturday, the Supreme Court, in its ruling on Citizens United vs.FEC, cracked open the door for superPACs. Two months later, a federal appeal courtâ€™s decision in Speechnow.orgvs. FEC threw it wide open. Now,registering as a super PAC is as simple as sending a letter and a form to theFEC.
So far, atleast 283 super PACs  have registered, although60 are run by one Florida man, Josue Larose,  and seem to serve no other purpose but piling up paperwork forthe FEC. And so far, super PACs have spent more than $29 million  on thepresidential race. (You can follow the money with our PAC Track application .) Althoughitâ€™s not yet clear how that compares with overall spending by the candidatesthemselves, reports indicated that super PAC spending in Iowa outstripped thecandidates' by 2-to-1, said Paul Ryan, a lawyer with the Campaign Legal Center .
More spending,likely the most ever in an election season, is on the horizon. And even thoughsome super PACs seem to be parodies (like comedian Stephen Colbert's Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow,  which has probably done more to deliver â€œsuper PACâ€ into theAmerican lexicon than any politician), the groups insist they are real.
â€œThereâ€™s allkinds of games going on,â€ said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, a nonprofitpushing to rein in super PACs. â€œSome group has put up a website telling you howto get around disclosure. Look, we have huge problems on our hands, and we getto celebrate the cause of many of these problems on Jan. 21, the secondanniversary of the Citizens United decision. We have to deal with them as bestwe can.â€
Hereâ€™s arundown of some new super PACs and examples of how confusing things can get:
The Patriot SuperPAC,  which registered with the FEC on Tuesday,boasts a website  promising to be the â€œfuture home of something quite cool.â€ Itwill work to defeat  President Barack Obama, but it shouldnâ€™t be confused with theconservative Patriot PAC , which promises to be the â€œpoint of the spearâ€ and asks peopleto sign a petition without providingthe text . Nor should either be mistaken for the Patriot Majority USA PAC , which supports Senate Democrats.
Protecting OurVote PAC  registered on Jan. 13, with one of thebest signatures  in any super PAC filing. Its mission is unclear: The websitesimply says, Protecting OurVote PAC . American Sunrise registered as a super PAC the same day, organized in part by Lora Haggard, theformer chief financial officer for onetime Democratic presidential candidateJohn Edwards.
Some peopleregistering super PACs appear to be confused themselves. Patricia McBride ofWasco, Calif., registered Citizens FireupSuper PAC  on Jan. 9 to support or oppose Obama butneglected to say which angle sheâ€™ll take. McBride also wrote that she wished toestablish the super PAC as a (c4), which is shorthand for a 501(c)4, the IRS code for a social-welfare nonprofit.Although 501(c)4s are allowed to make certain political expenditures, they are notallowed to be super PACs. Regardless, the FEC appears to have registered thegroup.
On Jan. 5, asuper PAC called â€œa SuperPACâ€  registered with the FEC, with a website at www.asuperpacforhire.com , which includes a way to donate. It also features theexplanation: â€œHaveyou ever wanted a message to get out to the voting public about a candidaterunning for federal office but didn't want the mess of production, compliance,or disclosure paperwork?Â a SuperPACwants to get the TRUTH out too.â€
Treasurer Matthew Balazikof Frederick, Md., said the group is real. Ads on its website , which proclaim â€œPaidfor by a SuperPAC,â€ target Democrats whoâ€™ve turnedRepublican.
â€œWeâ€™re prettyconservative around here,â€ Balazik wrote in responseto an email. â€œWe believe fundamentally that you should be able to speakpublically (sic) and anonymously so long as you do not violate anyone elseâ€™srights.â€
When asked if anyonehad tried to hire a SuperPAC super PAC, Balazik wrote simply: â€œThatâ€™s a good question.â€
On Jan. 4, â€œThe Internetâ€  registered as a super PAC. Unfortunately, its website  doesnâ€™tappear to be working, but it does raise the specter of ads proclaiming, â€œpaidfor by The Internet.â€
The previous week, Cain ConnectionsPAC registered as a super PAC, with no website, days after Herman Cain had droppedout of the Republican race. Its mission is unclear.
Earlier in December, the AmericanCrosswinds PAC â€” sounding remarkably similar to the Republican fundraisingjuggernaut AmericanCrossroads super PAC â€” registered as a super PAC, although it has no website and noemail address.
On Dec. 1, Feel the Heat PAC  registered from a Washington P.O. box â€” just like manyreal super PACs. Its website  never got up and running, and reception must have been cool: OnTuesday, it terminated itself . The Restore TrustPAC,  started by the same person, had similarissues.
Also in December, Americans for a BetterTomorrow, Today â€” clearly a play on Colbertâ€™s super PAC, Americans for aBetter Tomorrow, Tomorrow â€” registered with the FEC. On Dec. 12, itannounced it wanted to be a super PAC, with a typo : â€œAmericans for a BetterTomorrow, Toady.â€
Todd Bailey, who formed the super PAC, saiditâ€™s working for the Occupy Wall Street movement, which has decried the CitizensUnitedruling and the effect of moneyon politics. In other words, a joke on a satire is operating in earnest,apparently under the theory, â€œif you canâ€™t beat 'em, join 'em.â€
â€œThereâ€™s atool thatâ€™s been created that everyoneâ€™s using,â€ Bailey said. â€œYou have to makea choice. Either stand on sidelines, or get in the game and use a tool thatyouâ€™re really not comfortable with.â€