So far, Super PACs – independent campaign groups with unlimited fundraising rights – have proven effective in the Republican presidential primary race, to date mostly helping former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney tar his rivals and cement his lead.
But as the Super PAC blitz gears up with a slew of ads to begin airing in the first Southern primary state of South Carolina, the Republican Party may be experiencing a bit of Super PAC hangover as ads placed by such groups are exposing rifts in the GOP, pointing out candidate weaknesses, and giving a treasure trove of material for President Obama's reelection team to exploit.
Gingrich, for one, was put in a complicated spot on Friday, when he asked a Super PAC vying for his election to withdraw a factually flawed “documentary” ad on Romney, entitled “King of Bain,” which is set to air in South Carolina on Sunday.
Since the Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision that paved the way for Super PACs also forbids “coordination” between the PACs and candidates, Gingrich was forced to make the entreaty to the Winning Our Future PAC as a “citizen.” (That pretzel-twisting inspired a primer on the process by Comedy Central comedian Stephen Colbert, who handed off his real Super PAC to colleague Jon Stewart on the air last week.)
Meanwhile, a Super PAC that backs Romney, Restoring Our Future, aired ads in Iowa that painted Gingrich as "having more baggage than the airlines." Gingrich accused Romney of lying about not coordinating with the PAC on the attack ads, given that it's run by former Romney aides. (The Gingrich PAC received a $5 million donation by casino magnate Sheldon Adelson ahead of the South Carolina primary push.)
“The substance of the ads has been to accuse Gingrich of being unreliable as a politician and Romney of being unscrupulous in business,” the Los Angeles Times writes in an editorial. “That's Citizens United at work, and Republicans may be reminded to be careful what they wish for.
For the most part, liberals have decried the Supreme Court's decision to allow Super PACs, especially since some of the rules in place allow the PACs to hide their donors until after citizens have actually voted in the primaries, which was the case in Iowa. Conservatives have largely supported the decision, saying it makes sense to characterize cash donations as expressions of free speech.
To be sure, the groups can be extraordinarily effective. After Romney-supporting Restore our Future PAC began running attacks ads against Gingrich in Iowa, he quickly fell from first to fourth place in the polls.
But at least for now, negative consequences are also being felt by the candidates, and complicating the broader Republican mission to unseat President Obama in the November election.
Given that Romney has become the presumptive nominee after winning in Iowa and New Hampshire, his rivals' proxies have fired hard, with PACs supporting Gingrich and Texas Gov. Rick Perry lambasting Romney's record as head of Bain Capital, an investment firm he once headed.
The problem, political analysts say, is that the ads came off as attacking not just Romney, but capitalism itself. “That wasn't one of Newt's better ideas,” writes University of Tennessee law professor Glenn Reynolds, on his Instapundit blog.
The anti-Romney themes touted by opponent Super PACs could form the foundation for a Democratic attack strategy should Romney seal the nomination. Like the PAC attacks, Democrats will likely focus on Romney's personal wealth, his history of flip-flopping on key positions, and his work at Bain, which included shutting down companies and laying off workers.
The Winning Our Future Super PAC “documentary” on Romney, which has been cut down into smaller campaign ads, at one point features a man saying that Romney “pulled the rug out from under our plant.”
"The White House will argue that he is a cold-blooded, out-of-touch millionaire with a questionable jobs record," Larry Haas, a political commentator and former aide in the Clinton White House, told the Guardian in London. "The White House will likely put it forward that Romney is not on the side of ordinary Americans.”
To be sure, Obama will be vulnerable himself to Super PAC attacks once the general election campaign gets down and dirty.
But for now, the well-funded but unruly Super PACs have become a circular firing squad of sorts for Republican candidates desperate to make a last stand in South Carolina.
Whether the situation will make Republicans amenable to tweaking the law remains a question. Suggested reforms have included more timely disclosure of donors and prohibitions on PACs lining up behind individual candidates.