Aug. 18, 2011 -- The treasurer of Stephen Colbert's Super PAC has quit to work for Texas Gov. Rick Perry's presidential campaign, drawing attention to these organizations that raise unlimited amounts of money from unions and corporations.
Colbert's Super PAC had been using real money as part of a joke, encouraging people to support fictitious candidate "Rick Parry" at the Iowa Straw Poll, even as Gov. Perry was flirting with a run for the presidency.
Salvatore Pupura was treasurer of the Colbert Super PAC but will now work for the real-life Perry campaign.
Colbert's high-concept mockery of the political process might qualify as a joke for the comedian's TV audience but the rise of Super PACs is not. They are raising real money and are likely to affect the 2012 elections, experts say.
There is a Super PAC (political action committee), for instance, that really does back the interests of Gov. Perry, but is not affiliated with his campaign. It is called "Make Us Great Again." A similar Super PAC, "Restore Our Future," is expected to back former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. A former consultant for Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., who is also running for president, has broken off to form a Super PAC, Citizens for a Working America.
Similarly, Super PACs are springing up to promote liberal interests, too. The AFL-CIO, for instance, plans to launch its own Super PAC.
Disclosure forms filed with the Federal Election Commission in August show an early buildup of money collected by newly formed political groups, also known as Super PACs, that can accept unlimited contributions from corporations, unions and other groups.
Both liberal and conservative groups raked in millions of dollars, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Democrats are playing catch-up after Republican Super PACs swooped into key House races in the final days of the 2010 midterm elections and, with organizing and advertising, helped Republicans take control of the House of Representatives.
The top three liberal-oriented Super PACs, all of which were formed after that 2010 shellacking, are House Majority PAC, Priorities USA Action, a group started by two former Obama White House staffers, and Majority PAC. They raised a total of $5.2 million for 2012.
The largest conservative Super PACs -- American Crossroads, started by former George W. Bush adviser Karl Rove and played a pivotal role in the 2010 midterms, and Club for Growth Action, associated with the anti-tax Club for Growth -- raised a total of $4.3 million this fundraising cycle.
The influx of limitless money is possible thanks in part to a ruling in 2010 that struck down major portions of the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act. In a 5-4 vote, the Supreme Court overturned provisions that prevented corporations and unions from contributing without limit to political campaigns.
Eight of the nine justices voted to uphold the disclosure provisions in the 2002 law but political groups have so far avoided compliance by funnelling anonymous money through nonprofit organizations that are recorded on the Super PACs' disclosure forms.
"On the one hand, the justices were affirming the value of disclosure but they were also giving a free pass to nonprofit groups to take unlimited amounts of money," said Michael Beckel, a spokesman for the Center for Responsive Politics.
PAC donations were limited before the court ruling last year.
GOP, Democrats Accept Anonymous Monetary Contributions
Both parties have accepted anonymous monetary contributions for 2012; liberals adopting the practice after denouncing it in 2010 amid losses in the midterm elections.
Critics of the Super PAC strategy believe that the use of unlimited corporate and union money will corrupt the process even further. Former Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin characterized the practice as "dancing with the devil" while speaking at Netroots Nation, and claimed that Democrats could still raise money without "without selling our soul."
Feingold lost his seat in 2010 to Republican Ron Johnson and has started his own political action committee, Progressives United, aimed at curbing corporate influence. His organization technically falls into the anonymous 501(c)(4) nonprofit organization category but is voluntarily choosing to disclose its donors.
Still, there are some who believe that the unlimited cash is good for Democracy. Brad Smith, chairman of the Center for Competitive Politics, recounted the 2010 Super PAC experiment as a positive and one that unseated a large number of career politicians.
"I think that it makes those races more competitive," Smith said.
Incumbent politicians often spend their time raising large sums of money to scare off potential challengers. Many out-raised their challenger by a 10-to-1 ratio in 2010, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
As for whether Super PACs will survive in their current form, David Vance, a spokesman for the Campaign Legal Center, doesn't believe so.
Politicians will eventually act out of self-preservation, he said, enacting legislation in response to a hypothetical super-scandal involving donated money and that forces Washington to change the rules of the game.
"The stage is set for scandal in this election cycle," Vance said.
Corporate Donations Receiving More Attention
The most important thing Super PACs could provide is anonymity to corporations with deep pockets. With large corporate contributions come great responsibility, to their shareholders and customers who get wind of these political donations and can vote with their wallet.
Retail chain Target recently came under fire for supporting the Republican candidate for governor in Minnesota after gay rights activists drew attention to the monetary gift.
New Balance CEO Jim Davis also came under fire for a contribution made to the Romney campaign, public scrutiny forcing the company to distance itself from the CEO.
It especially hurts a company that has taken steps to market itself to portray a specific social agenda, said Jerry Swerling, who is the director for the Strategic Communication and Public Relations Center at the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism.
Companies that promote themselves as going green, for example, could look hypocritical for then donating money to politicians who don't support strong environmental regulations.
"The line is disappearing between what you do politically and what you do on the consumer marketing side," Swerling said.
And perhaps executives have gotten the memo when it comes to forming a cohesive corporate political message. Starbucks' Schultz has pledged to stop all political contribution until Washington has come up with a plan to deal with nation's long-term debt problem.