By Carten Cordell | Watchdog.org Virginia Bureau
ALEXANDRIA — If politics were a horoscope, 2012 would be Year of the Super PAC.
Able to solicit unlimited donations from corporations, unions and individuals, the independent expenditure-only committees, as they are officially known, are changing the face of elections with record-setting fundraising.
And yet in one of the most contested Senate races in the nation, in Virginia, two Super PACs —aligned with Democrat Tim Kaine and Republican George Allen — have reported paltry numbers in their fundraising reports.
In fact, neither has eclipsed $10,000 in donations to date this year.
Kaine’s New Virginia PAC reported $7,000 in second quarter earnings Monday, adding to a total of $8,000 for the year, while Allen’s Independence Virginia PAC took no money to supplement a$1,000 donation in the first quarter, the Virginia Public Access Project reported.
The two Super PACs were formed in March — within days of each other — with the goal of raising $2 million to $3 million to help each candidate. Super PACs cannot donate to a campaign, but they can run attack ads against opponents to gain ground in a divided electorate.
The modest amounts in Virginia are overshadowed by the princely sums being spent on the presidential race, but they aren’t an anomaly to other Super PACs, as it seems no one can define “status quo.”
“I am not sure there is a ‘usual’ for the Super PAC community because the whole process is so new,” said Bob Biersack, senior fellow at opensecrets.org, a Center for Responsive Politics website tracking money in politics. “There are several hundred of these organizations now, and they range from big sophisticated organizations to tiny, little idiosyncratic things.”
Super PACs have raised $318.4 million and spent $156.5 million to date, according to opensecrets.org. Some 680 groups classify themselves as Super PACs, and Geoff Skelley, of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, said they are changing the game in campaign fundraising.
“We kind of entered a brave new world in terms of Super PAC spending,” he said. “We don’t know what is going to happen because we have never had an election where these amounts are being spent by outside groups. If anything, I think the pattern is unclear.”
Skelley suggested the real campaign war chests may not even come from within the state.
“We expect a lot of outside spending,” Skelley said. “I expect (Karl Rove’s PAC) Crossroads GPS will spend a lot of money backing Allen. A lot of the Democratic (Super PACs) will probably do the same thing for Kaine, but in terms of (the candidates’ affiliated) ones, it doesn’t surprise much that hadn’t raised a ton.”
Don’t expect the candidates to go prowling for change under couch cushions to pay for a campaign ad.
Kaine has raised $10.4 million to date while Allen has $8.2 million in his coffers. According to opensecrets.org, just 7 percent of Kaine’s campaign finances come directly from PAC contributions — which, unlike Super PACs, can contribute to a campaign. Allen claims 14 percent of his fundraising comes from PACs.
“Maybe people who are going to give are more inclined to give directly to the candidates than to PACs that are directly related to them by name,” Skelley said.
Since Super PACs can receive unlimited donations, even from a single donor, it’s possible New Virginia and Independence Virginia could see their donations skyrocket as election day nears.
“They can raise money very quickly,” Biersack said. “Obviously, they can get unlimited amounts from other people or organizations, so things can happen very fast and, at times, are somewhat unpredictable.
“I wouldn’t judge from (the low numbers) and say these are failed somehow or they are not serious. You need to look at who created them in the first place and what kind of experience do they have in politics.”
Both organizations are headed by veteran political specialists. New Virginia’s Mark Longabaugh served on both the Clinton-Gore campaign in 1992, and on Bill Bradley’s presidential run in 2000.
In charge of Independence Virginia is Paul Bennecke, a former political director for the Republican Governors Association and veteran of several successful gubernatorial campaigns, including Bob McDonnell’s in 2009.
“I don’t have any doubts that there will be groups (funding the race), both political parties will be heavily involved,” Biersack said. “It is one of the critical races in the country; it will get plenty of financial attention.”
Calls to both Longabaugh and Bennecke were not returned by press time. Representatives from the Allen and Kaine campaigns were not able to comment about the Super PACs.