That changed two years ago, when a federal court of appeals ruled in a case called Speechnow.org vs. FEC that individual contributions to political advocacy groups could not be limited. The court cited the majority opinion in Citizens United, which concluded that independent spending does not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption.
After the Speechnow ruling, the FEC created a new category for such political groups, bestowing them with the ungainly handle "independent expenditure-only committees." A reporter for Roll Call, Eliza Newlin Carney, dubbed them "super PACs" in an early write-up.
Election law attorney Michael Toner said the moniker had increased the spotlight on their activities.
"It's certainly a cooler name" than 527 organization, Toner said. " 'Super PAC' -- who can't be intrigued by that?"
David Keating, the president of Speechnow.org, the group that brought the case that triggered the creation of super PACs, is unfazed by the controversy that has raged around their proliferation.
"The 1st Amendment is written to protect speech, and it doesn't say that everyone is going to have the same-size megaphone," he said.
He does have one complaint, however: "I think it would have been much better to call them 'Speechnow PACs.' "
Staff writers John Hoeffel in Columbia, S.C., and Maeve Reston in Florence, S.C., contributed to this report.