In this year's brawling and unpredictable GOP presidential primary, super PACs have emerged as the latest magnet for controversy.
Super PACs have drawn flak not just from campaign finance watchdogs, who argue that the loosely regulated fundraising committees violate federal contribution limits, but from candidates themselves. Presidential super PAC organizers have sniped at competing political action committees, and in some cases such PACs have spent more ad money than the candidates they support.
The latest entrant on the presidential super PAC scene is Winning Our Future, launched this week by a former Newt Gingrich fundraising aide.
The group's formation came just as Gingrich urged supporters not to donate to super PACs that pay for negative ads against Republicans. It's the second super PAC set up recently to boost the former Speaker. Ex-Gingrich aide Charlie Smith launched Solutions 2012 last month.
Winning Our Future's president is Becky Burkett, the former chief fundraiser for American Solutions for Winning the Future, a Gingrich-run nonprofit that pulled in $28.2 million in the 2010 election cycle. Burkett said the new super PAC is already being flooded with calls from potential small donors, large donors and bundlers and will spend money on ads and on grass-roots organizing.
Burkett's close ties to Gingrich are typical of other presidential super PACs and raise questions about whether such organizations are truly independent or even legal, say campaign finance watchdogs. Super PACs sprang up after last year's landmark Supreme Court Citizens United ruling to relax election spending rules. The ruling freed super PACs to raise unrestricted money but only if they operate independently from candidates.
"It is plain that these groups are being created in close association with the campaigns," Democracy 21 President Fred Wertheimer said. Reform advocates "are exploring challenging their legality," possibly by approaching the Justice Department, Wertheimer said. He noted that some super PACs are attracting the same donors and even putting out virtually the same messages as the presidential campaigns they support.
A pro-Rick Perry super PAC known as Make Us Great Again recently spent $1.5 million on a 30-second TV spot that featured segments of footage that later turned up in a Perry campaign ad, "CBS News" reported. Make Us Great Again was launched by Austin lobbyist and former Perry chief of staff Mike Toomey. PAC organizers did not respond to a request for comment, but a spokesman for the Texas governor told CBS there was no coordination between the campaign and the PAC.
"Both constitutionally and legally, being a supporter of a candidate does not disqualify someone from participating in independent activity or independent expenditures," said Jan Baran, an election lawyer at Wiley Rein.
But watchdogs aren't the only ones complaining. Former Louisiana Gov. Buddy Roemer recently lit into fellow Republican contender and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman over a pro-Huntsman super PAC. Known as Our Destiny, the PAC has made $1.35 million in campaign expenditures, public records show, even as the Huntsman campaign has remained off the air.
Roemer's complaint centered on reports that Huntsman's father, Jon Huntsman Sr., is the PAC's chief underwriter. "Is that independent?" Roemer asked at a candidate forum, according to NBC. "I mean, I have a big imagination, but I just can't imagine that father and son don't talk."
Huntsman's father "is one of a number of donors," said Our Destiny attorney Ronald Jacobs, a partner at Venable. He added: "We have a number of procedures in place to shield the super PAC from the campaign."
The biggest-spending super PAC so far is Restore Our Future, which backs former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. It mirrors Romney's overall fundraising advantage as of the end of the third quarter. That PAC had raised $12.2 million as of the most recent public disclosures and launched a $3.1 million ad campaign this month in Iowa.
Restore Our Future drew some complaints from watchdogs recently when it changed its filing status from quarterly to monthly, a switch that actually ensures it will not need to disclose any of its donors until early primaries are over.
"Because the primaries were moved up in so compacted a time frame, it's administratively difficult to file preprimary reports almost every week," said PAC Treasurer Charlie Spies, an election lawyer at Clark Hill.
Controversial or not, super PACs may end up playing a disproportionately large role in 2012, election lawyers said. That's because presidential fundraising, particularly on the GOP side, is down compared with previous elections.
Michael Malbin, executive director of the nonpartisan Campaign Finance Institute, agreed this cycle is different: "The relative weakness of presidential candidate fundraising is one of the impulses making super PAC fundraising much more important."
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., carries a musket on stage as he speaks during the American Conservative Union's Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at National Harbor, Md., on Thursday March 6, 2014.