Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney campaigns in Florida. (Joe Burbank / Orlando Sentinel )
Reporting from Washington — Voters in the early presidential nominating states will soon be bombarded with millions of dollars in advertising from independent political organizations whose donors can remain secret until after the first five primaries and caucuses are held.
That is the unintended result of decisions in recent days by state Republican officials to move up several key early contests, putting them ahead of the Jan. 31 financial disclosure deadline for super-sized fundraising committees.
The new committees, known as "super PACS," are changing the nature of political races by allowing wealthy corporations and individuals to contribute unlimited sums to support a favored candidate, as long as they do not coordinate with the official campaigns. Campaigns, in contrast, operate under sharp restrictions in the size and sources of donations.
The campaigns have begun releasing their fundraising totals for the third quarter, although full accountings are not due until Oct. 15. So far, Texas Gov. Rick Perry appears to be leading the pack with $17 million. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who led in fundraising before Perry joined the race in August, is expected to report raising somewhere north of $14 million, according a source close to the campaign. Texas Rep. Ron Paul said Wednesday that he had pulled in more than $8 million.
In past presidential cycles, those are the numbers that would have helped determine the credibility and strength of a candidate. But the emergence of new candidate-focused super PACs has lessened the importance of the campaign's own fundraising, at the same time making it more difficult for voters to discern who is trying to influence them and why.
One election law attorney in Washington representing presidential and congressional candidates calls the new rivers of money "the dark campaign." Brett G. Kappel, an attorney in the Washington office of the law firm Arent Fox, says the new super PACs are unsettling the traditional norms of presidential fundraising "while providing a dramatically enhanced role for wealthy donors."
An outgrowth of the Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision, which allowed corporations and unions to spend unlimited amounts of money on political activity, super PACs such as American Crossroads played a significant role in shaping last year's congressional elections by campaigning for parties or causes. But this year marks a new phenomenon: the creation of super PACs aligned with specific candidates. So far, groups have formed on behalf of Perry, Romney, Paul, Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann and former Ambassador Jon Huntsman Jr., as well as President Obama.
It is unclear how much money will be raised and spent by the new groups. But the amount will be significant. Make Us Great Again, a pro-Perry super PAC formed by a former chief of staff to the Texas governor and one of his top donors, set its early fundraising goal at $55 million, according to a planning document that was first reported by NBC.
A super PAC founded by allies of Mitt Romney reported raising $12.2 million in the second quarter, compared with $18.2 million reported by Romney's official campaign.
Under the rules set by the Federal Election Commission, super PACs, like other political action committees, are allowed to file campaign finance reports just twice a year during years in which there is not a federal election. That means their next filing report, which will cover their activities from July 1 through Dec. 31 of this year, is not due until the end of January.
The election calendar was to have begun with Iowa's caucuses on Feb. 6, but a decision by Florida to move its primary to Jan. 31 has set off a cascade of changes. As the calendar currently stands, voters in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, South Carolina and Florida will have participated in Republican caucuses or primaries before super PACs are required to disclose their donors.
Super PACs that have formed on behalf of Perry, Romney and Bachmann do not plan to file campaign finance reports until Jan. 31, their representatives confirmed Wednesday. The others did not respond to inquiries.
"This is the first presidential election we've had with corporations and individuals being able to make unlimited contributions, but it won't be captured in real time," said Lawrence Noble, a campaign finance lawyer who previously served as the FEC's general counsel.
The filing requirements are more rigorous during election years, but there will still be delays between donations and disclosure of the funding sources. Super PACs can choose to report either on a monthly basis or in connection with each separate primary. Those choosing to file monthly won't have to forward their first report for the election year until Feb. 20.