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Super PACs fueling GOP attack ads

Eventual nominee could pay a price

By Brian C. Mooney
Globe Staff / February 2, 2012
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In the first presidential election since the Supreme Court opened the floodgates of big-dollar campaign financing, new so-called super PACs have poured tens of millions of dollars into the Republican campaign, financing negative ads that have damaged the public’s view of the leading candidates.

The super PACs have special clout because, unlike candidates’ campaigns, they can collect donations of any size. The super PACs have spent $40 million thus far to support their respective candidates, even as they are forbidden from coordinating with them.

The arrival of the super PACS has resulted in a profound change in the nominating process, as candidates disclaim responsibility for the super PACS’ negative advertising. And because the GOP is the party with a contested primary race this year, its eventual nominee may pay a price for the super-PAC-fueled negative ads.

“I think super PACs may have created a system of mutually assured destruction,’’ said Mark McKinnon, who has been a media consultant to the presidential campaigns of George W. Bush and John McCain. “No matter who wins, they will have been so thoroughly nuked no one can govern because they’ll be completely radioactive.’’

Every candidate has a related super PAC, an independent but closely allied organization that can collect unlimited sums from individuals, corporations, and labor unions. As the campaigns move from state to state, so do the super PACs, which revealed donors and their contributions for the second half of 2011 Tuesday.

Restore Our Future, supporting front-runner Mitt Romney, has laid into his chief rival, Newt Gingrich, in Iowa and Florida. Winning Our Future, backing Gingrich, has become increasingly strident in its attacks on Romney. The result? Both candidates now are viewed negatively by the general electorate, recent polling shows, and the numbers have been spiking.

“What’s developed is this division of labor where the candidate’s campaign has the ability to focus more of its advertising on positive messages because they can leave the negative to the super PACs,’’ said Anthony J. Corrado, a Colby College professor of government who specializes in campaign finance issues. “As a result, the very negative primary campaign is going to leave whoever is the nominee in a position where they begin the general election with fairly high negatives.’’

And it could get worse, with Gingrich vowing to fight all the way to the August convention in Tampa.

Outside groups attempting to influence elections are nothing new. They existed before the Supreme Court ruling two years ago that lifted limits on contributions and the timing and content of electioneering messages. But they were prevalent in the general election, not the nominating phase.

The presence of super PACs has created a Jekyll-and-Hyde dynamic, particularly in Iowa, where the pro-Romney super PAC relentlessly ran a series of withering attack ads that eviscerated Gingrich while Romney’s own committee aired sunny, upbeat spots. The pro-Gingrich super PAC started with positive ads in Iowa, but by South Carolina had added a mix of tough attacks on Romney to its repertoire. By Florida, both super PACs - and the campaigns themselves - were running a steady stream of negative spots as the race took an unusually nasty turn following Gingrich’s victory in South Carolina. Romney won going away in the Sunshine State.

An analysis by Kantar Media’s Campaign Media Analysis Group found that an astounding 92 percent of ads airing in the week before the Florida primary were negative, with 95 percent of 1,012 spots aired by Gingrich’s campaign being negative, and 99 percent of the 3,276 spots run by the Romney campaign also negative. The pro-Romney super PAC aired 4,969 spots, all negative, the group found. For the pro-Gingrich super PAC, 53 percent were negative. Overall, 68 percent of all ads aired in Florida targeted Gingrich with negative messages.

One factor in Winning Our Future’s ad mix was the request by Miriam Adelson, wife of casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, that the super PAC use her $5 million contribution “to continue the pro-Newt messaging,’’ said a source with knowledge of the transaction who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak publicly. As a result, the super PAC ran a combination of positive and negative spots. An earlier $5 million contribution from Sheldon Adelson had no such strings attached.

In the battle of super PACs, the pro-Romney group outspent the pro-Gingrich one better than 2 to 1. As of Dec. 31, Restore Our Future had raised $30 million, compared with $2.1 million for Winning Our Future. The Adelson contributions were in January, after the reporting period.

The super PACs are filling a gap in funding for the candidates’ own campaigns. When the primary season began four years ago, the top five Republican presidential candidates had reported raising $217 million. This cycle, the top seven GOP hopefuls had raised about $133 million, nearly 40 percent less.

The pro-Romney super PAC is already pressing its huge financial advantage by making small media buys in Arizona and Michigan, which will not hold primaries until Feb. 28.

The fund-raising disparity highlights another phenomenon in the super PAC era. Big checks - or the prospect of them - from single donors can help under-funded campaigns hang on despite defeats that in the past could be knockouts.

Rick Santorum, the Iowa winner but a third- and fourth-place finisher in three later states, has soldiered on despite raising only about $2.2 million through Dec. 31. He has said he raised about $4.5 million in the month since, but an allied super PAC, Red White and Blue Fund, has spent about $2 million to date to keep him afloat.

The pro-Santorum super PAC raised about $730,000 through Dec. 31, and nearly 80 percent of it came from two wealthy donors - Wyoming investor Foster S. Friess ($331,000) and Pennsylvania philanthropist John M. Templeton Jr. ($250,000). A second pro-Santorum super PAC, Leaders for Families, reported raising $150,000 in that period, with $50,000 coming from Friess and $75,000 transferred from the Red White and Blue Fund, reports show.

Santorum has done the most with the least of any of the surviving candidates. Rick Perry ($20.1 million), Jon Huntsman ($5.9 million), and Michele Bachmann ($9.3 million) all raised significantly more than Santorum before dropping out last month, and Perry and Huntsman had support from super PACs that outspent the one backing Santorum. In the competition to outlast the other as a conservative alternate to Romney, Santorum’s campaign overhead is a fraction of Gingrich’s.

Santorum and Ron Paul basically passed on Florida, an expensive winner-take-all state, and, like Gingrich, hope to benefit from a stretch with lower-cost caucus states in advance of Arizona and Michigan and Super Tuesday on March 6.

Paul raised $26 million through Dec. 31 and has been helped by Endorse Liberty, a super PAC, funded in large part by PayPal cofounder Peter Thiel, who contributed $900,000, according to an FEC report filed Tuesday. The super PAC has spent about $3.3 million to promote Paul, mostly for Internet ads.

Brian C. Mooney can be reached at bmooney@globe.com.

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