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Super PACs and their cash are political game-changers

Negative ads altering results of latest polls

Las Vegas casino tycoon Sheldon Adelson pumped new life into the campaign of Newt Gingrich with a $5 million contribution to the Winning Our Future political action committee. Las Vegas casino tycoon Sheldon Adelson pumped new life into the campaign of Newt Gingrich with a $5 million contribution to the Winning Our Future political action committee. (NEW Y ORK TIMES)
By Brian C. Mooney
Globe Staff / January 20, 2012
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COLUMBIA, S.C. - No matter how Newt Gingrich fares in tomorrow’s Republican presidential primary here, he can thank Las Vegas casino tycoon Sheldon Adelson and the operatives at Winning Our Future, the super PAC that has leveled the media playing field for him since Adelson, a billionaire, wrote a check for $5 million to the organization.

Gingrich’s candidacy was hanging by a thread after woeful finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire, caused in part by negative ads financed by a super PAC allied with Mitt Romney. The Adelson gift has helped alter the equation in one of the nation’s most conservative states.

And as dramatically as super PAC money has whipsawed the Gingrich campaign, it also threatens to return the making of the president to a pre-Watergate free-for-all of big money chasing big returns at the ballot box.

In addition to the PAC boost, Gingrich has also gained late momentum the hard way, grinding through long days on the ground in South Carolina, distinguishing himself in debate, and demonstrating his career-long ability to make news.

But since Adelson - a Gingrich friend and benefactor of long standing - kicked in desperately needed cash a few days before the New Hampshire vote, the former House speaker has benefited enormously on the airwaves in South Carolina. In the eight days after New Hampshire, the pro-Gingrich Winning Our Future was able to match the pro-Romney Restore Our Future super PAC in the Palmetto State, reports to the Federal Election Commission show. The Gingrich super PAC ads both attack Romney and promote Gingrich.

A Supreme Court ruling in the Citizens United case in 2010 gave birth to the latest conduit of campaign cash, the super PAC, allowing wealthy donors like Adelson - and scores of others whose identities won’t be revealed until the end of the month - to pour unlimited sums into the campaign environment. Donors to the candidates’ own campaign funds are limited to $2,500 each election cycle as a result of a post-Watergate reform.

The PACs are supposed to operate independently of candidates and parties, but in reality, all of the candidates can send messages to their PAC allies via their public statements. The PACs’ proliferation has sounded alarms among campaign finance watchdogs and the public alike. A New York Times/CBS poll released yesterday indicated that voters overwhelmingly want limits on individual contributions.

With the second anniversary of the game-changing Citizens United case this weekend, reformers are clamoring for new restrictions, or at least more transparency, with disclosure of donors in real time or close to it. Some advocate a constitutional amendment, which would take years.

As of yesterday, super PACs had reported spending about $28.5 million for and against Republican presidential candidates.

Win or lose in South Carolina, Gingrich intends to fight on to the Jan. 31 primary in Florida, with its 10 media markets, some of them very expensive. Awaiting him is an environment already seeded with $4.9 million worth of ads and direct mail funded by the pro-Romney super PAC, reports to the FEC reveal. Many reprised the Iowa and South Carolina ads that dusted off Gingrich’s old baggage, including a $300,000 ethics penalty and work with two of the Republican right’s betes noires, mortgage giant Freddie Mac and Democrat Nancy Pelosi. Yesterday, Restore Our Future reported buying $1.54 million worth of ads attacking Gingrich in Florida.

Longtime political media analyst Kenneth Goldstein said a study by his organization, Kantar Media’s Campaign Media Analysis Group, showed that super PACs are outspending candidates’ campaigns in South Carolina, and that Gingrich is still the target of the most negative ads, about 22 percent of all ads. Compared with Iowa, however, that’s a love tap. In Iowa, 45 percent of all TV ads hit Gingrich, according to the analysis by Goldstein’s organization.

Overall, 54 percent of the South Carolina ads have been positive, compared with 46 percent negative, the group found. In Iowa, negative ads accounted for more than 70 percent of all spots, the study showed.

Reformers and watchdog organizations are gearing up to push Congress and the FEC for at least new reporting requirements to increase transparency. As it now stands, nearly all of the contributions to super PACs will not become public until Jan. 31, the day of the Florida primary, and subsequent reports will be filed on a monthly basis.

In 2010, legislation to require more transparency passed the House but failed in the Senate, where Democrats fell one short vote of the 60 needed to advance the measure.

“Because of the ability not just of individuals but also corporations to drop big money into important political messages in these early primary states, the urgency is far greater now to have this information before the voters cast their ballots in those early states,’’ said Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan group that tracks the influence of money in politics.

The only reason the public knows about Adelson’s donation is that he confirmed it after it was leaked that he intended to give an even larger amount.

Another nonpartisan watchdog organization, the Sunlight Foundation, has drafted legislation that would require “real-time online disclosure’’ of contributions and identification of top funders in advertisements.

“One of the reasons we drafted it is that we were so disappointed that leadership of both parties and the president have left the issue alone for so long,’’ said John Wonderlich, the foundation’s policy director.

The magnitude of the changes in the new environment was made clear by Michael Toner, a former FEC commissioner: “As much as is being spent now by super PACs, I think it will be a drop in the bucket compared to what will be spent in the general election by them; I expect we’re going to see in excess of $1 billion by the time of the November election.’’

Brian C. Mooney can be reached at brian.mooney@globe.com.

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