If there was a silver lining for open-government advocates in the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling that unleashed corporate and union spending on elections, it was that the identity of those who pay for all those annoying ads would be made public on a regular basis.
It hasn’t quite worked out that way.
Since Labor Day, spending by outside groups taking advantage of the high court’s Citizens United decision totaled a little more than $229 million, including unions. Forty-four percent of the total — $100 million — has come from non-disclosing, nonprofit corporations.
The clearest example comes from the top two spenders, two organizations that share the same post office box in Washington, D.C.
American Crossroads, the so-called super PAC co-founded by Republican strategist Karl Rove, has spent $33.1 million since Labor Day, according to Federal Election Commission records. Its top donor is Texas billionaire and businessman Harold Simmons, who along with his company, Contran Corp., has given $13 million to the group so far this election, according to a Center for Public Integrity review of Federal Election Commission records.
Second is Crossroads GPS, the nonprofit sister organization of American Crossroads, also co-founded by Karl Rove, which has spent $30.3 million. Its top donor is — unknown. Crossroads GPS was organized as a nonprofit, “social welfare” organization. The Internal Revenue Service does not require it to disclose its donors to the public, nor does the FEC.
Both groups, which back Republicans, can pay for the same type of “express advocacy” ads, urging people not to cast a ballot in favor of a particular candidate — often in not-very-friendly ways.
Rounding out the top five spenders are the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, also a nonprofit, at No. 3 ($16 million); Priorities USA Action, at No. 4 (which favors President Barack Obama, $15.3 million); and House Majority PAC at No. 5 (which favors House Democratic candidates, $9.2 million).
Unions can make large donations to super PACs and direct expenditures from their treasuries thanks to Citizens United. So far, the direct spending totals a little more than $4 million.
For the presidential race, independent expenditures since Labor Day total $121 million. Twenty-seven percent was aimed at helping Obama; 71 percent at helping Romney.
If it seems ads are mostly negative, it is not your imagination. Eighty-eight percent of independent campaign spending went to negative ads, mailings and other materials.
Even super PACs, which do reveal their donors, at times report contributors that — you guessed it — don’t reveal their donors.
The Now or Never super PAC, which shifted from backing unsuccessful tea party and Sarah Palin-backed candidate Sarah Steelman for Republican nominee for U.S. Senate from Missouri, is running ads opposing Iraq War veteran Tammy Duckworth, who is running as a Democrat in Illinois’ 8th Congressional District.
The super PAC reported contributions of $2.3 million in quarterly filings with the FEC released Monday. Of the total, $2 million came from Americans for Limited Government — a nonprofit that doesn’t reveal its donors.
Rachael Marcus contributed to this report.
Help support this work
Public Integrity doesn’t have paywalls and doesn’t accept advertising so that our investigative reporting can have the widest possible impact on addressing inequality in the U.S. Our work is possible thanks to support from people like you.