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Ruth Marcus: It's hard to follow the election money

BY RUTH MARCUS Published: November 9, 2012

Of course, Conard's generosity looks skimpy in retrospect. Las Vegas casino owner Sheldon Adelson and his wife anted up an astonishing $53 million during the primary and general election campaigns.

By contrast, established corporations have so far been wary of writing big checks — at least publicly. One ominous portent of corporate giving in future elections: Chevron's $2.5 million last month to a super PAC backing House Republicans.

But by far the most disturbing development is the hundreds of millions in “dark money” sloshing about the political system.

Of the $1 billion in outside spending, about $400 million came from these groups — nonprofits and trade associations, such as the Chamber of Commerce, that say they need not disclose donors.

Those entities have been able to engage in such shadow spending in previous elections, but the Citizens United ruling freed them from the flimsy fiction that their messages were mere advertising about issues. Now, with corporations free to engage in independent expenditures, nonprofits can be as transparent as the next PAC.

The leading example is Crossroads GPS, the nonprofit set up by Republican strategists Karl Rove and Ed Gillespie to complement their American Crossroads super PAC. Together, the groups have spent more than $175 million this election. Crossroads GPS accounted for more than $71 million of that, almost all on independent expenditures and with no donors' identities disclosed.

All this makes a mockery of a campaign finance system that is supposed to limit the size of contributions and ensure full disclosure. There are some solutions — stepped-up enforcement of tax and election rules and more stringent disclosure laws — but there needs to be a will to fix this mess.



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