Koch brothers launch own super PAC. How powerful is big money?

The Koch brothers' new super PAC, the Freedom Partners Action Fund, is revving its engines just in time for important midterm elections.

Carlo Allegri/Reuters
Businessman David Koch arrives at the Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute Gala Benefit in New York last month. Mr. Koch and his brother, Charles Koch, are launching a a new "super PAC" just ahead of midterm elections.

The Koch brothers, already known as prodigious political spenders, are now helping to launch their own conservative “super PAC” – a group designed to spend unlimited sums in efforts to influence election outcomes.

The new group is called the Freedom Partners Action Fund. It’s revving its engines just in time for important midterm elections, with control of Congress at stake.

The news is the latest sign of the growing influence of outside money – as opposed to funds raised directly by candidates and political parties – in the US political system.

A “super PAC” is a political action committee, or PAC, whose fundraising is not subject to the limits set by federal election laws governing candidates or parties. That’s because the super PACs don’t give money directly to candidates or coordinate their advertising with them. The groups were made possible in part by the 2010 US Supreme Court ruling in the Citizens United case.

The Midwestern industrialists Charles and David Koch already have a history of massive giving to political candidates and groups. The Koch-founded group Freedom Partners fund, for example, a 501(c)(6) business group, raises lots of money and donates to a range of affiliated or allied groups engaged in politics.

That Freedom Partners fund, however, is limited by rules governing its tax-exempt status. It can’t spend the bulk of its money trying to get candidates elected or voted out of office.

The new super PAC doesn’t face that restriction.

“It can spend 100 percent of its money on politics,” says Bill Allison, editorial director at the Sunlight Foundation in Washington, which tracks the role of money in elections.

And where an individual can only give $2,600 to a candidate, the Kochs and others face no cap on giving to the independent super PAC.

The raw power of money doesn’t always prevail in elections. Republican strategist Karl Rove led a big super PAC effort that failed to push Mitt Romney over the top against President Obama in the 2012 race for the White House, for example. And more recently, House majority leader Eric Cantor lost a primary vote to a challenger despite a funding mismatch.

But the influence of independent super PACs is rising, playing an ever larger role alongside traditional candidates and party committees.

Already more outside money has been spent on 2014 races than had been spent at this time in the 2012 election cycle, says Viveca Novak, editorial director at the Center for Responsive Politics in Washington.

Democrats have their own super PACs, as they race to keep up with Republicans in the money chase.

News that the Kochs are founding a super PAC was first reported this week by Politico.

Political analysts see the super PAC rollout as a sign the Kochs are unbowed in the face of persistent criticism by Democrats, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, who has cast the brothers as villains using their money to distort the majoritarian essence of US democracy.

In some ways, the Kochs appear to be taking a page from the playbook of Mr. Rove. Just as Rove has a super PAC (American Crossroads) with the potential to spend unlimited amounts on campaign ads, the Kochs have Freedom Partners Action Fund to do the same.

And just as Mr. Rove has a tax-exempt sibling group (Crossroads GPS) that can accept gifts without disclosing donor names, the Kochs already have their similar group, Freedom Partners. Those groups can’t make political campaigns their primary activity – but they can funnel large chunks of their money toward political purposes (including to their affiliated super PACs) while keeping donors anonymous in the process.

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