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FEC Chairwoman Ellen Weintraub

SALEM, Ore. — Do candidate-specific super PACs pose a greater threat of corruption to democracy than multi-candidate super PACs, Federal Election Commission Chairwoman Ellen Weintraub asked Friday at a Willamette Law School symposium on political money and influence.

The answer, Weintraub said in response to her own question, “could be yes.”

“I would probably define corruption a little more broadly than the Supreme Court does,” Weintraub added.

Ahead of last year’s elections, candidate-specific super PACs proliferated.

President Barack Obama’s allies, for instance, created Priorities USA Action, while GOP operatives launched Restore Our Future to support the presidential ambitions of Republican Mitt Romney.

In fact, every candidate during the Republican presidential primary was aided by at least one super PAC active on his or her behalf. Many times, one wealthy donor, or a small group of wealthy funders, provided the bulk of the money these groups raised.

Dozens of single-candidate-focused super PACs are currently registered with the FEC, and Weintraub, a Democrat, told the crowd at the Willamette Law School that these days candidates are asking, “Who are we going to get to start our super PACs?”

Casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and his wife, Miriam, notably combined to provide $20 million of the $23.9 million that the super PAC Winning Our Future raised through March. Other relatives of Adelson were responsible for an additional $1.5 million to Winning Our Future.

That group helped keep afloat the candidacy of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who personally thanked the Adelsons for their financial support when he dropped out of the race.

Meanwhile, former Sen. Rick Santorum’s cash-poor campaign was also substantially aided a super PAC called the Red, White and Blue Fund. Wyoming businessman Foster Friess was one of the largest bankrollers of the operation, and Friess himself traveled with Santorum on the campaign trail.

Weintraub noted that these super PACs kept the candidacies of Gingrich and Santorum alive “long past the time” that they could have sustained themselves on limited contributions alone.

Presidential candidates in 2012 could accept no more than $2,500 per individual donors, while contributions to super PACs, which are not allowed to coordinate their spending with candidates, are not limited.

At the symposium, Weintraub also defended her frequently criticized agency, saying its membership of three Democratic commissioners and three Republican commissioners was designed to find compromise. Nevertheless, she joked that when you Google the FEC, the most frequent result is the word “dysfunctional.”

Additionally, Weintraub noted that the FEC received more complaints during the 2012 election cycle than ever before, and she encouraged making new rules about political spending by U.S. subsidiaries of foreign-owned companies, an issue that arose in 2012 when a company wholly owned by a Canadian firm donated $1 million to Restore Our Future.

“It’s an area that we really ought to do a rulemaking on,” she said.

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Michael Beckel reported for the Center for Public Integrity from 2012 to 2017.