From autism research to dentists, a growing number of issue-based organizations are preparing to use these powerful political committees not for their prescribed purpose -- advocating for the election or defeat of candidates -- but as de facto lobbying arms on Capitol Hill.
Super PACs may raise and spend as much money as they please, including from corporations, unions and individuals, to broadcast whatever they want about politicians within the context of their particular special interest. Traditional issue ads, in contrast, don't allow for full-throated attacks or endorsements, and the nonprofit groups that often sponsor them can't by law have a primary purpose in engaging in politics like super PACs can.
So for some issue interest groups, super PACs are a potentially major complement to -- if not upgrade over -- traditional, Capitol Hill lobbying in their ability to bring heat on lawmakers and twist their arms toward their agendas.
"If you're a lobbyist, you're talking with a legislator and mention you're forming a super PAC, their ears are really going to perk up just because you said the words 'superPAC,'" said Shana Glickfield, a partner at public affairs firm Beekeeper Group. "It's such a big, scary thing -- and can give you an extra edge of influence."
That's precisely why Craig Snyder, a former lobbyist for Autism Speaks and a chief of staff to former Sen. Arlen Specter, is now president of the new Autism Super PAC.
The super PAC -- which is not affiliated with other autism education organizations -- plans to produce an advertising campaign aimed at convincing both President Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney to endorse its agenda, which includes demands to double federal autism research dollars by 2017 and create an autism research office within the National Institutes of Health. Formed last month, the group has already bankrolled pricey political polling indicating Americans are overwhelmingly supportive of increased federal autism funding.
If the candidates ignore the super PAC, Snyder said he's prepared to launch a yet-to-be-produced advertising barrage against either candidate, regardless of who ultimately wins the White House. These ads, he said, would be "hard-hitting" in tone and tenor.
"There will be political consequences for ignoring our community and this issue," Snyder said.
"As a super PAC, you can speak to power with so much more clarity -- both the money in and message out are more open than they'd be otherwise," he added. "Whatever you think of the Citizens United decision and super PACs, if these are going to be the rules, why not use them for causes you feel are important?"
The National Association of Realtors -- among the first issue-based organizations to form a super PAC -- has augmented its already sizable lobbying firepower with its own super PAC that's rewarded like-minded lawmakers with hundreds of thousands of dollars in advertising air cover.
Through July, the National Association of Realtors Congressional Fund super PAC boasted spending nearly $826,000 to boost various pro-development lawmakers such as Reps. Gary Miller (R-Calif.) and Gary Peters (D-Mich.) and congressional candidate Marc Veasey (D-Texas). And it still reported having $1 million in the bank.
A Realtor super PAC ad lauding Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), for example, repeatedly praised the House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman for his development-friendly legislation and stances, such as fighting for tax deductions on second homes. A pro-Peters ad says the congressman "fights every day for safe and affordable home financing for all responsible borrowers." Both overtly call for the lawmakers' reelection.
"The super PAC -- it's a complement to our other outreach and it's another form of lobbying, in a sense," said Scott Reiter, the association's political director who also runs the super PAC.
"You'll definitely see more and more mainstream groups looking at super PACs," he added.
Officials from special interest groups such as Gun Owners of America and the Drug Policy Alliance have yet to form super PACs, but they confirm they would consider doing do.
The American Dental Association and the Cooperative of American Physicians are among established issue-focused organizations that have already formed super PACs.
The ADA's super PAC has spent at least $323,000 in radio ads, direct mail and polling to support Reps. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) and Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) as well as Republican House candidates Scott Keadle of North Carolina and Fred Costello of Florida -- all dentists by trade. About half of this super PAC's money comes in the form of contributions from Citibank, according to federal disclosure reports.
Of course, forming a super PAC isn't without political risk.
Siding too much with one political party could make it difficult to do business in Washington and risk losing bipartisan credibility.
And campaign finance reformers have vilified super PACs as a primary symptom of a political finance regime run amok, where big money raised from corporate sources and wealthy individuals unduly games the system.
But a 2011 federal court decision and subsequent Federal Election Commission ruling is making issue-focused super PACs even easier to create. The hybrid PAC is a single political committee that may operate as a traditional PAC and a super PAC at the same time, so long as the money for each are kept in separate accounts.
It's particularly attractive since many special interest groups already have a traditional PAC. These existing PACs need only send a letter to the FEC to announce they're going hybrid. At least 45 hybrid PACs have materialized, federal records show.
They include special interests ranging from the Fraternity and Sorority Political Action Committee and PURO PAC, which advocates for the cigar industry, to the Harbor Trucking Association Federal Political Action Committee and Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund Federal PAC.
Big-ticket congressional issues coming up after Nov. 7, including the budget deficit, tax reform and sequestration, almost invite super PAC activity, said James Bonham, chairman of Manatt, Phelps & Phillips' federal government affairs and public policy practice.
For super PACs sporting big financial reserves after Election Day, "it's going to be pretty hard to keep that cash sitting in an account -- if it's there, it'll be spent, even if it's not on an election."
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