Political committees unfettered by donation limits are dominating the last weeks of the presidential nominating contests in Iowa and New Hampshire, funding aggressive attack campaigns that are swamping the efforts of the candidates themselves.
In Ohio, $3 million in ads funded by secret donors have already been aired against the state's incumbent Democratic senator, Sherrod Brown — a year before the election.
In California, three of the committees financed by unlimited donations have formed in recent weeks to back Rep. Howard L. Berman of Valley Village, who has been forced by redistricting into a primary battle against fellow Democratic incumbent Brad Sherman of Sherman Oaks.
The early activity at all levels heralds a transformation across the country in the first presidential cycle since a 2010 Supreme Court decision lifted the limits on individual and corporate donations to independent political organizations, known as "super PACs."
Super PACs are now outspending the GOP presidential candidates on ads in what could be a $6- or 7-billion election year for federal races, rendering obsolete the old system under which donations were strictly limited to candidates and party committees.
"This is a radical change," said Trevor Potter, a Republican election lawyer who advised Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in his 2008 presidential bid.
If present trends continue, the 2012 election will reverse more than a century of efforts to curb the influence of big money on politics.
During his second term, President Theodore Roosevelt spoke with alarm about the ability of corporate and financial elite — "malefactors of great wealth" — to steer government decisions. In 1907, he signed legislation banning corporate contributions to federal candidates.
In future decades — including during Richard Nixon's presidency — Congress expanded campaign regulation, requiring disclosure of contributions and limiting the size of donations in federal races. Those restrictions have unraveled since the high court's Citizens United decision.
Some conservatives have applauded the renewed freedom of corporations and the wealthy to finance election campaigns, countering what they see as a longtime advantage held by Democrats and their labor allies. Still, few deny that high-dollar donors are changing the nature of the race in the early presidential delegate selection states.
The highest-profile victim so far is Newt Gingrich, whose rapid descent in opinion polls correlates with the drubbing he received in negative ads produced by a super PAC aligned with Mitt Romney.
That group, Restore Our Future, has outspent the official Romney campaign on TV and radio in Iowa by more than 2 to 1, according to sources familiar with the ad buys. Ultimately, the independent committee will spend $3.1 million in the state, according to the organization's director, Carl Forti.
The major super PACs supporting candidates Rick Perry and Jon Huntsman Jr. have also aggressively advocated for their candidates, spending at least $3.4 million and $2.2 million respectively on media in the key early states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. Aside from Perry, the Texas governor who has spent $2 million more than his super PAC, the campaigns have been outspent by their independent counterparts.
Even as spending by these groups rises in the early primary and caucus states, their donors remain veiled because of a Federal Election Commission schedule that doesn't require full disclosure until after the early contests are concluded.
Technically, the new rules permit donations only to independent political committees that do not coordinate their activities with a candidate's official campaign. But in the presidential race the candidates and the super PACs are intertwined by personnel, if not legally.
Forti, who was political director of Romney's first presidential bid in 2008, runs the pro-Romney group along with several other former Romney aides. Revolution PAC, the group backing Ron Paul, has on its advisory board two former staffers of Paul's 2008 presidential bid. And Make Us Great Again, the largest of several groups supporting Perry, is run by his former chief of staff, Mike Toomey.
Rick Tyler, longtime aide and confidante to Gingrich, announced recently that he would join Winning Our Future, the new super PAC set up by another close Gingrich aide.
"Super PACs are headed by political people that know the campaign already," said Fred Davis, a Republican strategist who left Huntsman's presidential campaign this year to direct the super PAC benefiting the former Utah governor. "They know the candidate and they know the players."
Davis estimated that about half of the group's small staff used to work on Huntsman's official campaign.
"You don't have to cheat, you don't have to break the law to know that Newt Gingrich needed to be taken down — that he was hurting Mitt Romney," Davis said. "If you don't know that, you have the wrong guy heading the PAC."
Reformers are especially alarmed by super PACs active in congressional races, because large sums of money they command can be even more influential in smaller elections than at the presidential level.
Their effects have been felt in Nebraska, where Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson was preparing for a $50-million reelection race before he announced his retirement last week. Although aides said the early spending by anonymous donors didn't trigger his decision, Nelson knew that the 2012 budget would have doubled the state's previous record — $25 million spent during his last reelection.
Nelson's campaign manager, Paul Johnson, said the new flow of big money had changed the nature of state campaigns.
"A Senate race is now a national campaign in which you run in some ways as a surrogate for national groups with their own agenda," Johnson said. "It means candidates run not just against their opponent but against all other Senate candidates competing for outside money."
He said the new environment discouraged promising candidates from running: "They look at the cost of this race and say, how do I compete?"
At the House level, a former top aide to Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) started a super PAC this fall named YG Action Fund for the "young guns," the conservative Congress members whom Cantor helped recruit. Organizer John Murray hopes to raise $30 million between the super PAC and its nonprofit arms, whose donors do not have to be disclosed.
In 2010, the super PAC Crossroads and similar outside groups dumped more than $700,000 into an ad blitz against Rep. Maurice D. Hinchey, a New York Democrat. Hinchey barely won reelection; the source of the money is still unknown.
"This is destructive of the democratic process," Hinchey said.
In California, where the super PACs are expected to try to sway the brewing Democratic primary between two incumbents, 30-year congressional veteran Berman said he was in no way encouraging the organizations set up on his behalf, but neither was he inclined to turn down the help.
In a recent interview, Berman said he knew from media reports about the three super PACs organized on his behalf, including one called the Valley-Israel Alliance. But he said he had no other details and did not plan to intervene other than asking supporters to give only to his official campaign.
His opponent, Sherman, takes a different view. He plans to formally challenge Berman in a debate this month to join him in pledging to return to the U.S. Treasury any amount spent by a super PAC in their race.
The offer is meant to send a message to any donor that "they should donate to the campaign and not the super PAC," Sherman said.
If he doesn't get an agreement, Sherman said, he may not be able to rule out his own super PAC support.
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