It’s raining super-PACs at the Federal Election Commission.
More than 320 super-PACs and independent expenditure committees have registered with the FEC since a string of court decisions in 2010 that helped to clear the way for their creation. Almost 60 of the groups registered in 2012 alone.
The explosion of super-PACs is likely being fueled in part by a surge of media interest. Super-PACs affiliated with the Republican presidential candidates have made headlines with multimillion-dollar ad buys, and an elaborate satire of the groups by Stephen Colbert has brought the issue to late-night television.
Of the super-PACs that formed in 2010 or 2011, only 33 have received more than $1 million in contributions, and just 26 have spent more than $1 million on campaign activities, according to the most recent FEC filings. Approximately 176, or 66 percent, of the 266 super-PACs formed in those years have received less than $100,000.
And while veteran Washington operatives run marquee super-PACs such as American Crossroads and Priorities USA Action, many of the latest registrations are from people with little to no experience in politics. One recent registration was filed by a group of high school students who met on the Internet.
“There is certainly a fad element to this. They’ve seen it on Colbert, they’ve read it in the papers, and the simple fact is, it isn’t that hard to set one up,” said attorney Joe Birkenstock, who has worked on Colbert’s super-PAC.
“I think at some level there’s got to be a portion of this that say, ‘Hey, sounds like fun, looks like it’s not that hard. … Why don’t I do one?’ ”
Super-PACs can raise unlimited amounts of money for political advocacy, so long as they do not make in-kind or direct contributions to federal candidates or committees or coordinate with them.
One of the newcomers to the super-PAC game is high school senior Damian Palmer. Palmer started his super-PAC in January to see “if exploiting the FEC, like many of the current candidates for government positions do today, was as simple as [Colbert] made it out to be.”
He told The Hill it took him one hour to create his group, the Damian C. Palmer and Jack C. Pilgrim for a Better America Super PAC, and joked with friends that it was something he could mention on college applications.
Palmer isn’t alone when it comes to forming a super-PAC without Washington experience.
One group registered in January under the name “The Internet.” That super-PAC, formed by a group that met on the website reddit, claims it will choose political issues to oppose or support using a “bot” that will mine the Internet for trends.
Paul Ryan, the FEC program director and associate legal counsel of the Campaign Legal Center, noted super-PACs can also appeal to people looking for a quick buck.
The person in charge of a super-PAC can take “fat salaries or buy themselves beach houses” since there are no limits on personal use of funds, Ryan said.
Other established groups have started super-PACs as a way to tap into the grass roots. The Small Business Political Alliance PAC formed with a goal of using the group’s Washington experience to help elect small-business owners to Congress, communications director Donna Cahill told The Hill.
The trend has also produced a mystery man: Josue Larose. He is the head of at least 60 super-PACs that have registered with the FEC, none of which has reported raising any money. The committees are difficult to track, as Larose continually changes the names, often to associate them with corporations or groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Several attempts to contact Larose by The Hill were unsuccessful. The Chamber said it is not affiliated with him or his super-PAC.
It’s difficult to predict how many of the super-PACs will emerge as real political players in 2012. Larry Noble, counsel to Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, said the challenge for super-PACs is their reliance on deep-pocketed campaign donors, who are scarce in number and choosy with their giving.
“There aren’t that many of them to go around. Most people just can’t give that kind of money,” said Noble, a former FEC general counsel. “Their whole power comes from the fact that they can raise a lot of money.”
American Crossroads has raised almost $45 million since July 2010, more than any other super-PAC. Communications director Jonathan Collegio said Crossroads has been successful partially because it was an early adopter that now has a track record. Also, having a sister 501(c)(4) organization allows the group to reach out to a broader audience of donors.
“The real advantage that Crossroads has over some of these other groups is that with Karl Rove, Haley Barbour and Ed Gillespie raising money for the groups, there is an extraordinary brand,” Collegio told The Hill.
“They have lent their credibility to the organization, and donors know that if they invest with Crossroads, their dollars are going to be spent in extremely effective ways, as opposed to a new group that wasn’t so carefully thought out.”
Even though hundreds of super-PACs are registered, only “a couple of dozen” will end up gaining momentum, according to Birkenstock.
“There are legal problems that a super-PAC solves that you can now have a more efficient way of addressing if you know that you can raise the money. But if you can’t, the fact that they’re easy to set up doesn’t do anything to actually make them easy to operate or … make a difference with,” Birkenstock said.
Ryan of the Legal Center said the idea that super-PACs are “a wonderful new vehicle for grassroots political expression” is “just silly.”
“Grassroots political expression implies the common person, the average person of average means getting involved in politics. They have always been able to do so through traditional PACs,” he said.
“The average person can’t afford to give more than $5,000 per year to a traditional PAC, so it’s not as if there was no vehicle around … for the average person to be able to get involved in politics.”
Kevin Bogardus and Eryn Dion contributed.