Super PACs, the Great Democratizers

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Following a now familiar pattern in the GOP nominating contest, Rick Santorum’s Feb. 7 hat trick and sudden surge in the Michigan primary polls have motivated Mitt Romney’s ad men. Restore Out Future, the Romney-backing super PAC, has bought more than $800,000 of TV time in Michigan, slathering local broadcasts with the same caustic goo that corroded Newt Gingrich’s candidacy in Iowa and Florida. “Washington insider” will be the two words heard most by Michiganders in the next two weeks. But, despite his campaign’s massive fundraising disadvantage, words of praise for Santorum won’t be far behind.

The Red, White and Blue Fund, a super PAC backing Santourm, has lined up nearly $700,000 in TV ads for Michigan. That’s not much less that the Romney PAC’s total and it could counteract Romney’s potent attack. This is no small thing. As Slate‘s Dave Weigel pointed out in a smart piece earlier this week, super PACs, despite their arch-villainous depiction in some circles, are leveling the field in the Republican primary spending wars.

Add in the super PAC money and the advantage fades. Romney’s campaign had outspent Newt Gingrich’s campaign by a 7-2 margin and outspent Rick Santorum’s by a 19-1 margin. According to the Sunlight Foundation, which has tracked the super PACs all year, the Romney-centric Restore Our Future PAC outspent the pro-Gingrich Winning Our Future PAC only 2-1. It outspent the Santorum-philic Red, White and Blue fund by slightly better than 8-1, which was just what the PAC needed to spend to get its candidate into an Iowa tie.

Add to this the sudden celebrity of super PAC donors like walking slots jackpot Sheldon Adelson and noted 19th century women’s health expert Foster Freiss, and there’s a case that super PACs are increasing transparency as well by simple virtue of the attention they’re getting.

Transparency is really the issue here. Part of the backlash against super PACs is based on the conflation of soft money in general with changes in campaign finance law made by the 2010 Citizens United v. FEC ruling, which allowed corporations and unions to donate unlimited amounts. Campaign finance reform advocates worry that unlimited corporate giving allows the origin of donations to be obscured. And that does happen with super PACs. But much of Santorum’s PAC money is coming from Freiss, and many people know exactly who he is. Plenty more will know after Thursday’s aspirin incident.

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