Super PACs supersizing primary spending - WAFF-TV: News, Weather and Sports for Huntsville, AL

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Super PACs supersizing primary spending

Many campaigns are hoping to catch the eye of third party groups called Super PACs (Political Action Committees) that can spend unlimited amounts of money on political advertising. (Source: Raycom Media) Many campaigns are hoping to catch the eye of third party groups called Super PACs (Political Action Committees) that can spend unlimited amounts of money on political advertising. (Source: Raycom Media)
(WAFF) -

Republican front-runner Donald Trump talks often about how he's funding much of his presidential campaign.

Democrat Bernie Sanders reminds voters that most of his donations are small and from ordinary Americans.

They're telling anyone who will listen that they can't be bought by powerful outside interests. 

Yet, not every candidate operates the same way. Many campaigns are hoping to catch the eye of third party groups called Super PACs (Political Action Committees) that can spend unlimited amounts of money on political advertising. 

There are set limits on how much a person can contribute to a single candidate. Not only that, corporations and unions aren't allowed to give directly to a campaign. However, six years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a ruling that opened the fundraising floodgates for unlimited donations!   

In fact, Super PACs are raising and spending supersized amounts of money during this year's campaign season. Voters watched Jeb Bush's presidential campaign rise and fall despite being supported by the Right to Rise Super PAC and its 118 million dollars. Super PACs that support Hillary Clinton raised 57 million. Groups that favor Ted Cruz raked in $47 million and it's $34 million for Marco Rubio's backers. 

The U.S. Public Interest Research Group reveals, funding for Super PACs has skyrocketed 749 percent since the last presidential election. 

"2012 was the first presidential race we've had since the Supreme Court decision," said Chris MacKenzie, Communications Director of the U.S. Public Interest Research Group. "And now, in 2016, candidates have really honed their fundraising strategy to take advantage of the loopholes created by that Supreme Court case."

That Supreme Court case, "Citizens United," overturned the ban on independent expenditures. Now, corporations, unions, and even individuals can send unlimited donations to Super PACs.  Yet, people who run the Super PACs must follow certain rules if they want to spend the millions in their checking accounts. 

"They're not supposed to give money directly to a candidate," said UAH political professor Andree Reeves. "They're supposed to be spending money, advocating issues or maybe working against other candidates but it's not supposed to be coordinated at all with the candidate's campaign." 

Critics say many Super PACs are spending their unlimited donations like drunken sailors on a barrage of TV, digital and billboard ads that are often crafted by former campaign workers. 

"If they are staffed by former campaign people they know where that campaign money needs to go. They know who the constituents are. What needs to be spent and how it needs to be spent," said Reeves.

Retired Marine Jonathan McConnell is taking on the herculean challenge of trying to unseat Alabama Senator Richard Shelby, who's been a fixture in Washington, D.C. for nearly three decades.

Federal disclosures show that during the final two months before Alabama's Super Tuesday primary, Shelby's campaign spent more than $5-million on ads that accuse McConnell of bribery, campaign violations and being soft on immigration. 

"He's already outspent 14 presidential candidates. So, what does it say to people? The mantra we keep hearing all throughout the state is He's too old, he's been there too long, it's time for him to come home," McConnell said.

Senator Shelby's campaign started the year with a political war chest of $18 million, but outside groups, including the NRA and the National Association of Realtors have poured more than $900,000 into his re-election campaign. 

Some critics, including McConnell, claim Shelby can't relate to the average Alabamian since many of his largest donors live outside the state.  

MacKenzie told us about some of his research into Shelby's funding by a Super PAC.

"The head of an Ohio energy conglomerate that donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to Senator Shelby's Super PAC," said MacKenzie. The average Alabamian doesn't own an energy corporation and probably doesn't share the same values as this donor." 

MacKenzie is talking about Murray Energy, an Ohio company that donated $100,000 to the New Generation PAC. New Generation shuttered not long after passing the money to the Citizen Super PAC which supports Shelby.

Sen. Shelby is part of the Republican leadership that opposed President Obama's plan to increase EPA regulations on coal emissions. Yet, Senator Shelby isn't apologizing for his well-funded campaign. He says, if anything, McConnell is trying to duplicate his success. 

"He would do the same thing if he could. That's what he wants to do," said Shelby. "He's wanting some of the Super PACs. We have no control of them.  We have no connection to them. We don't even know them."  

Shelby may say he doesn't know the people associated with the Super PACs, but he may want to tell someone else to send a "thank you" note to hedge fund investor George Fox, who lives in Connecticut.

Last summer, Fox gave $1-million to the Citizen Super PAC that just spent more than $358,000 on ads to help get Shelby re-elected. 

Many have asked what happens if there's money left over in a Super PAC at the end of a campaign?  

A spokesperson for Priorities USA Action, the Super PAC that supports Hillary Clinton, says they "anticipate all of our funds will be spent this cycle on her."

Yet, the Federal Elections Commission said that while Super PACs must report all of their spending, there are no real restrictions on how the money is spent.  

So that means anyone who sets up and runs a Super PAC can pay themselves a salary, or even cash out the entire account. Donors can request that they are given their money back. Yet, Super PAC organizers aren't legally obligated to follow through. 

Interested in researching Super PAC and other campaign disclosures? There is a database you can access to look up that information - click here to learn more.

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