December 7, 2012

Counting last-minute donations, election spending tops $2B

The election was the first in which "super" political action committees spent hundreds of millions on television ads, especially those supporting Mitt Romney.

Jack Gillum and Stephen Braun / The Associated Press

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"Every dollar we raised was put to use in the effort to elect Mitt Romney," said finance chair Spencer Zwick, citing strong fundraising during the final weeks leading up to Nov. 6. Romney's election effort brought in $85.9 million since mid-October, compared with Obama's $111 million during the same period.

After a series of high-profile federal court rulings, the nation's relaxed campaign-finance system allowed for unlimited contributions from corporations, labor groups and others; television advertisements from nonprofit groups that concealed who paid for them and the proliferation of more than 1,000 super PACs. Those groups can't coordinate with the candidates they support, but groups on both sides of the political aisle were staffed with former campaign advisers who were deft political fundraisers.

But the election was known just as much for its sources of so-called dark money as it was for its hefty price tag.

Nonprofit "social welfare" organizations spent hundreds of millions more on so-called issue ads, and those groups don't have to disclose their donors because they're governed by tax law. Open-government groups have pushed Congress, to no avail, for a law that would require politically active groups to reveal their finances.

As well, federal rules require timely disclosure for super PACs, but determining who's behind big donations isn't always easy. In summer 2011, a fledgling company dissolved shortly after making a $1 million contribution to a super PAC supporting Romney; records showed that the company, established and closed over a four-month period, was formed by a Romney supporter who once worked with him at the private equity firm Bain Capital.

Other super PACs active this election season benefited from opaque, eleventh-hour contributions. FreedomWorks for America, a prominent tea party group, reported more than $5.2 million in donations during the first half of October — about 90 percent of the group's fundraising haul — from an apparent shell company in Knoxville, Tenn., called Specialty Group that advertises no product or service.

The company's owner, William Rose, said in a statement he was under no obligation to reveal where his money — ultimately used to boost high-profile congressional races — came from.

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