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Romney gets a boost from new funding environment

He is 1st GOP candidate with 'super PAC’ help

A PAC supporting Romney has raised $12 million this year, two-thirds the amount of his own fund-raising. A PAC supporting Romney has raised $12 million this year, two-thirds the amount of his own fund-raising.
By Matt Viser
Globe Staff / July 9, 2011

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WASHINGTON - Former aides to Mitt Romney have formed a series of campaign committees that can accept unlimited financial contributions, making him the most visible GOP presidential candidate thus far to reap the potential benefits of looser fund-raising rules.

At least four independent “super PACs’’ are being run by the aides, and one that is openly backing him has already amassed $12 million this year, which is two-thirds the amount Romney has raised for his candidate campaign account. Unlike Romney’s own account, however, which must be painstakingly filled within the confines of individual donation limits, these outside committees are unfettered by such caps.

A variety of super PACs supporting congressional candidates and various political agendas sprouted in months before the 2010 congressional elections, soon after court rulings struck down previous fund-raising restrictions. They have continued to proliferate as candidates and their supporters prepare for the 2012 presidential and congressional elections. Campaign finance watchdogs say they are yet another example of how federal court decisions based on First Amendment speech rights are raising the stakes in America’s political money game.

“The new legal landscape is taking us closer to the wild, wild west in terms of how much money is going to be in the process,’’ said Michael Beckel, spokesman for the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. “It’s a very loud megaphone that corporations, unions, and wealthy individuals [now] have at their disposal.’’

Supporters of Romney and President Obama, as well as political operatives on both sides of the aisle, have started the groups as they prepare to spend money on TV and radio ads in a bid to influence election results.

“The importance and the magnitude of the role these super PACs will play in the 2012 elections cannot be overstated,’’ said Paul S. Ryan, an attorney at the Campaign Legal Center, which closely monitors campaign finance laws. “They have virtually no restrictions on the money they can raise.’’

One Supreme Court ruling last year - Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission - allowed corporations and unions to spend unlimited amounts to directly advocate for candidates. Several months later, a federal appeals court in Washington allowed - in SpeechNow.org v Federal Election Commission - unlimited contributions to political action committees. These new super PACs, however, cannot spend their money in coordination with the candidate’s campaign, although the candidate is permitted to help fill the coffers.

There are 107 such groups registered with the Federal Election Commission, according to the Sunlight Foundation, which follows money in politics. The groups - more than a third of which were formed since the last election - represent a wide range of interests. Some back candidates, while others formed to support specific organizations, such as labor unions, the Sierra Club, and Tea Party groups in Texas and Virginia.

Bill Burton, a former deputy press secretary for Obama, formed a group called Priorities USA Action that spent nearly $97,000 in May on advertising targeting Romney, tagging him as a flip-flopper who would not protect Medicare. The spot ran in South Carolina, coinciding with a trip Romney made to the state.

Romney thus far appears to be the only GOP presidential candidate with a super PAC publicly established to help his cause, although there are two trying to recruit others to the field. Americans for Rick Perry PAC was formally established this week, and Draft Christie for President was formed in May. Texas Governor Rick Perry is weighing a run for president; New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has said repeatedly he will not run.

While sponsors of a super PAC can raise unlimited sums from individuals, the new rules limit the candidates themselves to soliciting super PAC money within limits of $5,000 per individual. Obama has supported federal legislation that would require more disclosure and has vowed not to help Priorities USA Action or other super PACs raise money.

“Neither the President nor his campaign staff or aides will fund-raise for super PACs,’’ said spokesman Ben LaBolt. “Our campaign will continue to lead the way when it comes to transparency and reform - refusing contributions from Washington lobbyists and PACs and disclosing the names of donors who are fund-raising for the campaign.’’

A Romney spokeswoman would not say whether he or his campaign will help independent super PACs supporting him raise money. The spokeswoman, Andrea Saul, said Romney was happy to have the support given the fund-raising advantages enjoyed by an incumbent president.

“President Obama and his political team have signaled they will spend a billion dollars to hold onto power,’’ she said in a statement. “We are pleased that independent groups will be active in fighting this entrenched power so the country can get back to work.’’

Restore Our Future PAC, which is being run by three former Romney aides, announced on Tuesday that it had raised $12 million during the first six months of this year. The group has not yet filed its detailed report with the government, which is due by Friday, so it is not yet clear where the contributions are coming from.

The group’s leadership includes Carl Forti, who in 2008 was Romney’s national political director and has since been political director of American Crossroads, a separate PAC set up by several prominent Republicans; Larry McCarthy, who was part of Romney’s media team in 2008; and Charles Spies, who was the general counsel to Romney’s 2008 campaign. “The super PAC was formed to support Governor Romney and level the playing field to respond to other groups that may be attacking him,’’ Spies said in an interview. He declined to comment further.

The other three super PACs with apparent ties to Romney are Jobs for Iowa, Jobs for Florida, and Jobs for South Carolina, each formed on June 24 by former Romney aide Rob Jentgens. Jentgens was the deputy chief financial officer for Romney during the first seven months of his last presidential campaign.

During a brief telephone interview, Jentgens downplayed his involvement with the committees and would not say why they were formed or whether they would support Romney.

“I’m just the treasurer,’’ he said. “I do the FEC reports. I make sure that the contributions are in there correctly.’’

Romney’s campaign would not comment. Public records show that Romney’s last presidential campaign paid Jentgens $32,500 over about seven months in 2007.

Jentgens referred questions to Chris Gober, a Texas-based attorney who Jentgens identified as the general counsel for the super PACs. Gober, who did not return messages, has worked for and represented various GOP candidates. He was also general counsel to the National Republican Senatorial Committee and deputy counsel to the Republican National Committee, and worked as an operative for George W. Bush’s two presidential campaigns.

American Crossroads has been among the most effective organizations at exploiting the super PAC rules. The PAC was formed last year by several top Republican operatives, including Karl Rove and Ed Gillespie.

The organization, along with affiliated group Crossroads GPS, spent heavily on the midterm elections and has pledged to spend $120 million on the 2012 election. They are not expected to get involved in the Republican presidential primaries, however.

“There’s no doubt it changes the nature of the game, and I don’t think for the better,’’ Gillespie said in a brief interview. “As a former party chairman I would rather see strong national parties spending the money and being accountable for the money. But that’s not the law. It is what it is, and that’s the rules we play by.’’

Matt Viser can be reached at maviser@globe.com.