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Candidate-specific super PACs, once exclusively associated with presidential hopefuls, have moved down-ticket and are now supporting candidates in congressional races this election.

Super PACs devoted solely to supporting a congressional candidate spent $28 million in the 2012 election with about $22 million going toward helping conservative candidates, according to a Center for Responsive Politics analysis of campaign data.

Federal Election Commission rules prohibit “coordination” between a candidate and an outside spending group, but many super PACs have gotten around those rules by hiring operatives who previously worked for the campaign.

The groups became prominent during the Republican presidential primary when each candidate had a supporting chorus in the form of a super PAC. The largest by far was Restore Our Future, which backs GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney.

Restore Our Future raised nearly $133 million this election cycle, or one of every five dollars raised by super PACs.

By far the biggest player in the congressional candidate-specific super PAC world is the Texas Conservatives Fund, which spent $5.5 million on independent expenditures, all of it during the Texas GOP primary battle for U.S. Senate.

The money was spent in opposition to Ted Cruz, the tea party candidate, in hopes of electing Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, who was considered the favorite of the Republican establishment. Cruz won the primary and is expected to easily win the general election.

The primary became an all-out spending war that attracted nearly $15 million. The pro-Dewhurst group was outspent by Club for Growth Action Fund, a tea party-aligned super PAC that targeted moderate Republicans in primaries in other states.

The Texas Conservatives Fund’s top donors are a roll call of super donors. The largest source of cash was Harold Simmons, the Texas billionaire who owns Contran Corp. Simmons, the No. 2 donor to super PACs this election, gave the Fund $1.1 million. Fellow Texan Bob Perry, the No. 3 overall donor to super PACs, gave $600,000. Sheldon Adelson, the top donor to super PACs, chipped in $250,000.

Both Adelson and Perry have also given money to Independence Virginia PAC, a super PAC targeting Virginia’s Democratic Senate candidate Tim Kaine, with $2.5 million — the group has only raised $2.6 million.

Adelson gave $2 million to Florida Freedom PAC, a super PAC that has spent $2.6 million on advertising in support of Rep. Connie Mack, R-Fla., who is running for Senate. Perry has given the group $250,000 while Rick Santorum-backer Foster Friess and hedge fund boss Robert Mercer have also chipped in.

Super PACS dedicated to a single candidate have fought for Democrats, as well.

End the Gridlock targeted Deb Fischer, the Republican candidate for U.S. Senate from Nebraska. She faces former U.S. Sen. Bob Kerrey, who is trying to get his old job back. Kerrey has a money edge over Fischer, having spent $5 million to her $3.4 million but has trailed in polls.

In other instances, like the Texas Senate race, they have proven to be a way for donors like Adelson, Simmons and Perry to wage intra-party warfare, making sure their favorite candidate has support against an insurgent.

In the incumbent vs. incumbent matchup in California’s 30th District, pitting Brad Sherman against Howard Berman, both Democratic House members, a candidate-specific super PAC called the Committee to Elect Effective Valley Congressman has injected $1.2 million into the race, all of it in support of Berman.

This story is a collaboration between the Center for Public Integrity and the Center for Responsive Politics. For up-to-date news on outside spending in the 2012 election, follow our Source2012 Tumblr and the hashtag #Source2012 on Twitter.

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