As the bid for the Republican presidential nomination moves closer to the "Super Tuesday" primaries on March 6, the influence of third party spending continues to grow. Super PACs, independent groups that can raise unlimited contributions from individuals and corporations, continue to dominate the airwaves with tens of millions of dollars in independent expenditures attacking Republican candidates and playing a substantial role in the Republican nomination. Super PACs aligned with the Republican frontrunners, congressional Democrats, and even President Obama continue to raise millions of dollars primarily from a small number of large individual and corporate donations. In January alone, over $50 million in independent campaign expenditures were made. This total is likely to even further expand in the coming months, even before the Republican nomination is secured, and extending well into the general election for the balance of the year.
As this activity accelerates, so too will the scrutiny over Super PAC operations, campaign financing in general, and legislative and state attempts to rein in such unlimited money. Campaign reform groups are calling for investigations into the activities of Super PACs, both Republican and Democrat. While campaign finance legislation may be an impossible task during an election year, some campaigns are trying to prevent the Super PAC phenomenon from infiltrating their election. Senator Scott Brown (R-MA) and his Democratic opponent, Elizabeth Warren, publicly agreed to request that independent groups not run broadcast or online ads in support of either candidate. Senator Jon Tester (D-MT) has proposed a similar agreement to his challenger, Representative Dennis Rehberg (R-MT). While these agreements are not enforceable against independent groups, which are legally prevented from coordinating with campaigns, they highlight a growing concern among federal candidates regarding outside spending on elections. Ultimately, these agreements may simply dissolve under the pressures of a contested election, or simply result in those dollars shifting to other races.
In a public reversal, President Obama's re-election campaign has announced that it will support the efforts of Priorities USA, a pro-Obama Super PAC, largely in response to the anticipated tens of millions of dollars expected to be raised and spent on behalf of Super PACs to benefit Republicans. The campaign also said it encourages the disclosure of those who contribute to the Super PAC. Senior campaign personnel and White House officials will be permitted to speak at events sponsored by the Super PAC, although they will not be allowed to fundraise. The President, First Lady, Vice President Biden, and Mrs. Biden will not appear at PAC events.
Obama's campaign has also announced that it will be running a 30-second ad to preempt criticism of the loans made by the Department of Energy to solar panel manufacturer Solyndra. This response highlights the impact Super PACs will have on the 2012 elections, as candidates will be forced to use their contribution-limited funds to respond to outside groups funded with unlimited donations.