Monday, January 9, 2012

Super PAC ads headed our way

Tomorrow's editorial tonight:

Voting is Tuesday in New Hampshire for the Republican presidential primary, but the politicians and pundits have already turned their energies to South Carolina. That’s probably as it should be. South Carolina’s deep conservativism may be a better barometer of the GOP’s voting base, and since 1980 the state has consistently picked the Republican nominee.

We welcome the attention and influence that this part of the country will have on picking the Republican nominee for president. But we don’t welcome or relish this: the onslaught of attack ads that are coming this way, starting Wednesday. Those ads are the work of a “super PAC” that, thanks to a wrongheaded U.S. Supreme Court ruling, can raise unlimited amounts of money for candidates with very few restrictions.

These particular attack ads airing on TV and radio are anti-Mitt Romney ads. They are from a group supporting Newt Gingrich called Winning Our Future. The super PAC got the $1 million for this initial buy from a billionaire casino owner in Las Vegas. He gave $5 million in all.

The ads are in response to ferocious ads from a Romney super PAC (Restore Our Future) against Gingrich during the Iowa caucuses last week. The ads infuriated Gingrich, who blamed them for his fall to a disappointing fourth-place finish.

Rick Tyler, senior adviser to the pro-Gingrich super PAC, predicts the ad buy and an anti-Romney film that the group has bought could be a similar “game-changer” for Gingrich. That’s something he desperately needs, having dropped below Romney, Ron Paul and Rick Santorum in recent polling for the GOP presidential nomination.

Political observers are calling this unrestricted largesse “the Wild West of spending.” It’s the kind of spending to influence the election process that many expected after the Supreme Court in a 5-4 vote imprudently upended the bipartisan McCain-Feingold campaign spending law, removing restrictions on political ads funded by corporations and unions. Experts expect that of the $5 billion or so being spent on the 2012 federal elections, nearly $1 billion is likely to be of this unlimited type.

Campaign spending rules don’t even require disclosure of who’s donating money for these candidates unless it’s for a specific ad. The Federal Election Commission had an opportunity last month to change that. But in a 3-3 party line vote, they chose not to require groups that air political ads to disclose their donors.

Romney and Gingrich aren’t the only GOP candidates with super PAC backing. Rick Perry’s been supported by Make Us Great Again and Jon Huntsman has the backing of Our Destiny. And these super PACs aren’t just in the Republican fold. Democrats have them, too. Priorities USA Action is a pro-Obama super PAC. Last year more than 300 groups not affiliated with a political party spent $266 million to influence the midterm congressional elections. They included 84 super PACs.

This outsized influence on the election process, especially without transparency, is wrong. Congress and the FEC can do something about that. We as citizens should demand that they do.