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Super PAC windfalls: How deep pockets are funding the 2012 election

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Charles Krupa/AP

(Read caption) Republican presidential candidate, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich gestures during a campaign stop in Dover, N.H., Monday.

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Newt Gingrich just got a big financial boost: a $5 million check from casino mogul Sheldon Adelson that’s intended to boost the ex-House speaker’s campaign.

We’ll note here that this cash isn’t going to Mr. Gingrich directly, but to an outside organization, a "super PAC," that’s endorsing him. And we’ll also note that this news reveals one way in which the 2012 presidential campaign is different from previous election cycles: It’s a lot easier than it used to be for rich people to shovel bags of cash at their favorite candidates.

Yes, we see you rolling your eyes there in the back, but the fact remains it’s true. For a long time it’s been difficult for the megabucks crowd to directly use their assets to help the politicians they want to elect. There's a $5,000 limit on the amount a person can donate to a campaign, and the Federal Election Commission watches that pretty closely. Sure, you can force your nephew to match your donation by threatening to write him out of the will, but that just takes a text message. More effort is required to cajole your friends, neighbors, and coworkers to ante up with you – a practice known as "bundling."

But the US Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United case has opened up political treasuries for business. The $5,000 limit remains, but this election cycle is the first with "super political action committees" – a fast, legal, and fun way to spend your kids' inheritance.

Super PACs can accept as big a check as a donor wants to write. They can spend it advocating particular candidates, too. The caveat is they are not supposed to directly coordinate with the candidate in question. Wink, nudge, know what I mean?

Here's how this works in practice, as revealed in numbers compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics and other watchdog groups. More than 50 people who have contributed to Mitt Romney's campaign have turned around and written big checks to Restore Our Future, a pro-Romney super PAC

The combined amount the super PAC raked in from these double spenders? A cool $6.4 million through 2011's second quarter. That's more than half the cash the group raised.

Democrats do this, too. If anything, they're even more dependent on deep-pocket donors. Priorities USA Action is a super PAC focused on President Obama's reelection. Only nine people maxed out their giving to Mr. Obama directly and then gave to this super PAC. But together, they accounted for $2.6 million – 82 percent of the money that Priorities took in through the second quarter. 

Here's an idea: Let's tax super PAC contributions of $1 million-plus. It wouldn't close the deficit, but it would be a start.

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Watch this video, by Monitor staff photographer Melanie Stetson Freeman, of GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich in New Hampshire:


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