By Joe Garofoli
Four years ago, candidate Barack Obama reshaped the presidential campaign by raising more money from donors who gave less than $200 than any candidate in history.
But analysts say the 2012 campaign will be dominated by wealthy corporations, unions and individuals who can anonymously spend as much as they want in favor of a candidate - thanks to how the Supreme Court decided the Citizens United case two years ago today.
The decision gave birth to a new type of political action committee, the super PAC. As thousands of Occupy Wall Street demonstrators in San Francisco and elsewhere protested the ruling Friday, analysts said it is enabling wealthy interests to be able to shape the political system like never before.
The millions of dollars spent fueling this winter's bloodbath of attack ads in the Republican presidential primary is probably just a sneak preview of a stream of ham-fisted political advertising expected this year - all the way down to congressional races. The super PAC war could be especially intense in California, where a redrawing of the state's political districts has put formerly safe congressional seats into play.
Through organizations with names like Winning Our Future, wealthy interests can furtively fund the type of nasty TV ads that torpedoed then-surging Newt Gingrich before the Iowa caucuses and later carpet-bombed South Carolinians with commercials calling Mitt Romney a job-killing "corporate raider" when he led the Bain Capital private equity firm.
At the same time, presidential aspirants can claim that they had nothing to do with the attacks because the presidential campaigns can't legally communicate with the super PACs doing the dirty work.
Still, the super PACs in favor of Gingrich and Romney are run by the candidates' former top associates, political pros familiar with their thinking and strategy. Plus, nothing is stopping the candidates from raising money for a super PAC that supports them.
In South Carolina, where today's GOP primary will be held, super PACs spent $6.9 million, while the campaigns of five major candidates spent a total of $5.4 million, according to the nonprofit Public Citizen.
The political carnage has so far been accomplished by just a handful of super PACs, which have spent $30 million to date, according to federal campaign filings. Nearly 300 super PACs from across the political spectrum have formed and are idling, waiting to spend untold millions.
Once it is clear who the Republican presidential nominee is, analysts said super PACs supporting Obama will kick into action.
"You will not be able to turn on a TV and not see political advertising," said Bill Allison, editorial director of the Sunlight Foundation, a nonpartisan group that aims to make government more transparent.
"It will be a sewer," warned Palo Alto Democratic Rep. Anna Eshoo, who has been at the forefront of urging Obama to sign an order that would require corporations doing business with the federal government to disclose their donors. He's balked.
Congressional racesNeither Obama, who could raise up to $1 billion for his re-election, nor the Republican nominee will have problems rustling cash or media attention. But the super PACs also could vastly increase spending in congressional races.
"Where I think you'll have a bigger impact are in the Senate and House races, where you'll see the super PACs raise more than the candidates lifted," said Richard Briffault, a professor of law at Columbia University and a campaign finance expert. "And you're going to see it sooner than ever before."
In Southern California, three super PACs are backing Rep. Howard Berman, a Democrat who is locked in a tough, redistricting-inspired battle against Rep. Brad Sherman, also a Democrat, for a San Fernando Valley House seat.
Some analysts predict that political ads this year could be as tough as in 2004, which is best remembered for hard-hitting ads from the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. The independent group ran ads saying Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry was "unfit to serve" because he distorted his war service.
Federal law then barred such groups from directly advocating for or against Kerry. Citizens United changed that.
Now, "it's whoever has the biggest benefactor wins," said Kate CoyneMcCoy, executive director of the National Coalition for Accountability in Political Spending, a nonpartisan group.
Gingrich's campaign was in tatters after the Iowa caucus. But then his longtime friend and political donor, billionaire casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, contributed $5 million to a super PAC supporting Gingrich so the former House Speaker could make it to New Hampshire, where he finished fourth, and South Carolina, where polls say he has a shot to win.
Under current election rules, Adelson could give only $5,000 directly to Gingrich's campaign.
Free speech issue?One of Citizens United's defenders said the ruling expands free speech rights. Now, if you want to say something directly about a candidate, you can spend as much as you want doing it.
"A lot of people don't want to give money to a political party because they may not agree with everything the party says," said Steve Simpson, an attorney who argued SpeechNow.org vs. FEC, a lower-court ruling decided two months after Citizens United that allowed independent groups to accept unlimited contributions from an individual.
Over the next few days, several organizations will be discussing ways to reform the system, from a constitutional amendment to increasing disclosure requirements. But while there is doomsday talk about the impact of Citizens United, Congress and the White House have done little so far to change it.
"We're disappointed," said Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen, "at how the president and Congress haven't led on this."