🚗 🚙 Turn your trusty old car into trustworthy journalism Learn more
Big Money 2012 with Frontline

Stealth spending on the rise as Election Day approaches

Marketplace Contributor Oct 18, 2012

After the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling that unleashed corporate and union spending on elections, there seemed to be a silver lining:  the identity of those who fund all those annoying ads would be revealed to the public on a regular basis.

It hasn’t quite worked out that way.

Since Labor Day, spending by outside groups taking advantage of the high court’s Citizens United decision totaled a little more than $229 million, including unions. Forty-four percent of the total — $100 million — has come from non-disclosing, nonprofit corporations.

The clearest example comes from the top two spenders. Both organizations are Republican backers. And they also happen to share the same post office box in Washington, D.C.

American Crossroads, the super PAC co-founded by Republican strategist Karl Rove, has spent $33.1 million since Labor Day, according to Federal Election Commission records. Its top donor is Texas billionaire and businessman Harold Simmons, who along with his company, Contran Corp., has given $13 million to the group so far this election, according to a Center for Public Integrity review of Federal Election Commission records.

Second is Crossroads GPS, the nonprofit sister organization of American Crossroads, also co-founded by Karl Rove, which has spent $30.3 million. Its top donor is — unknown. Crossroads GPS was organized as a nonprofit, “social welfare” organization. The Internal Revenue Service does not require it to disclose its donors to the public, nor does the FEC.

Both groups can pay for the same type of “express advocacy” ads, urging people not to cast a ballot in favor of a particular candidate — often in not-very-friendly ways.

Rounding out the top five spenders are the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, also a nonprofit, at No. 3 ($16 million); Priorities USA Action, at No. 4 (which favors President Barack Obama, $15.3 million); and House Majority PAC at No. 5 (which favors House Democratic candidates, $9.2 million).

Unions can make large donations to super PACs and direct expenditures from their treasuries thanks to Citizens United. So far, the direct spending totals a little more than $4 million.

For the presidential race, independent expenditures since Labor Day total $121 million. Twenty-seven percent was aimed at helping Obama; 71 percent at helping Romney.

If it seems ads are mostly negative, it is not your imagination. Eighty-eight percent of independent campaign spending went to negative ads, mailings and other materials.

Even super PACs, which do reveal their donors, at times report contributors that — you guessed it — don’t reveal their donors.

The Now or Never super PAC backed Tea Party candidate Sarah Steelman in her unsuccessful bid to win the Republican primary for one of Missouri’s U.S. Senate seats. Then the super PAC ran ads opposing Iraq War veteran Tammy Duckworth, who is running as a Democrat in Illinois’ 8th Congressional District.

The super PAC reported contributions of $2.3 million in quarterly filings with the FEC released Monday. Of the total, $2 million came from Americans for Limited Government — a nonprofit that doesn’t reveal its donors.

Total Citizens United-related spending (excludes PACs and parties): $229.2 million
Super PACs: $124.8 million
Nonprofits: $100 million
Unions: $4.1 million
Other: $181,000

Top CU spenders:
American Crossroads: $33.1 million
Crossroads GPS: $30.3 million
U.S. Chamber of Commerce: $16 million
Priorities USA Action: $15.3 million
House Majority PAC: $9.2 million

Total Independent Expenditures in presidential (including 3rd party): $120.9 million
Pro-Obama/anti-Romney: $33.1 million
Pro-Romney/anti-Obama: $86.3 million
Total negative ads: $106.1 million

Top Senate races for IEs
Virginia: $12.7 million
Wisconsin: $12.1 million
Ohio: $11.3 million

Top House races for IEs
California 7: $5.5 million
Illinois 17: $5 million
California 52: $4.8 million

Rachael Marcus contributed to this report.

There’s a lot happening in the world.  Through it all, Marketplace is here for you. 

You rely on Marketplace to break down the world’s events and tell you how it affects you in a fact-based, approachable way. We rely on your financial support to keep making that possible. 

Your donation today powers the independent journalism that you rely on. For just $5/month, you can help sustain Marketplace so we can keep reporting on the things that matter to you.