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Billionaires and shadowy groups fund record-breaking election

This election cycle super PACs and billionaires who have been able to donate anonymously, have funded the most expensive election in the nation's history.

By Jack GillumAssociated Press / October 31, 2012

American businessman Sheldon Adelson, is seated before Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney delivers a speech in Jerusalem in July. This election cycle, individual donations of $20 or even $50 are dwarfed by money from Las Vegas casino mogul Adelson the top super PAC donor this year who contributed more than $40 million to Republican super PACs, including those backing Romney and former candidate and House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

Charles Dharapak/AP/File

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Billionaires, anonymous donors and shadowy outside groups funneled enormous amounts of money into this year's federal elections, as the cost of the presidential campaign surged past $2 billion and is expected to set a record. Despite grumbling among watchdog groups and even candidates themselves, don't expect serious changes any time soon.

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After a series of high-profile federal court rulings, the US government's newly relaxed campaign-finance system allowed for unlimited contributions from corporations, labor groups and others; television advertisements from nonprofit groups that concealed who paid for them and the proliferation of at least 773 super political action committees.

Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney experienced both extremes from super PACs: Some attacked him mercilessly during the primary elections and others have supported Romney's campaign by purchasing ads assailing President Barack Obama.

The money race was as important as ever this election. Super PACs supporting Obama and Romney spent more than $500 million in ads, helping Romney especially in battleground states. Nonprofit "social welfare" organizations have spent hundreds of millions more on so-called issue ads, but they are governed by tax laws and don't have to disclose their donors.

Each presidential campaign raised more than $800 million, a staggering sum. Obama had shattered records four years ago when his fundraising apparatus pulled in $750 million. That amount raised by the presidential candidates is dwarfed by amounts being spent collectively on congressional campaigns.

"The general election story here will turn out to be the key role that super PACs have played in contested Senate races and some congressional races," said Trevor Potter, a former chair of the Federal Election Commission and an advocate of campaign-finance reform. "The amount of money is massive."

Proponents of tougher limits on money in politics said they worry about the potential for corruption, but they aren't optimistic about changes to the system. The Disclose Act in Congress, which would have forced campaigns to identify donors who gave more than $10,000, failed in the Senate.

The relaxed spending rules aren't upsetting everyone, including advocates who said unlimited contributions amount to political speech protected by the First Amendment. Some said rules requiring campaigns to identify donors violate a person's right to anonymous speech.

Whatever the case, the new rules have effectively allowed some donors to remain anonymous, such as in the case of a super PAC helping conservative candidates. FreedomWorks for America reported more than $5.2 million in donations during the first half of October — about 90 percent of the group's fundraising haul — from an apparent shell company in Knoxville, Tenn.

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