As Newt Gingrich and his supporters tell it, the indomitable former Speaker has used a fountain of rhetorical firepower to capture the imagination of a Republican base that yearns to beat an eloquent Barack Obama at his own game.
The reality is nowhere near as poetic. If Mr. Gingrich is still vying for the Republican presidential nomination at all, it has less to do with his debating skills than the $10-million a Las Vegas casino king and his wife have ponied up to support his candidacy.
The $10-million from Sheldon and Miriam Adelson, including a second $5-million cheque this week, has enabled a so-called super PAC to run pricey attack ads against Mitt Romney that Mr. Gingrich’s campaign could not afford to buy on its own.
And those ads could be the difference between a Gingrich victory in Tuesday’s Florida primary, or at least a strong enough showing to stay in the race, and political oblivion.
A super PAC is an entirely new vehicle for influencing U.S. elections that has hit its stride in the Republican primaries and will make the November vote the costliest presidential contest yet.
Indeed, if the Gingrich campaign had to rely on its own fund-raising – limited by law to a maximum of $2,500 from individuals and $5,000 from political action committees – the ex-House of Representatives Speaker likely would have had to quit the race weeks ago. The campaign had barely $1-million on hand on the eve of the primaries.
But two Supreme Court rulings in 2010 upended U.S. electioneering by paving the way for wealthy individuals, corporations and unions to spend without limit to help their preferred candidates – all in the name of a First Amendment right of free speech.
Along with other entities freed by the Supreme Court to spend willy-nilly on elections – including Crossroads GPS, a so-called 501(c) organization formed by former George W. Bush operative Karl Rove – super PACs supporting Republicans will change the race.
Thanks to super PACs, with apple-pie names such as Winning Our Future and Restore Our Future, American democracy is more than ever a money game in which the only limit on the freedom of speech of the uber-rich is the size of their bank account.
Super PACs are supposed to be independent of the candidates they support and are not allowed to co-ordinate their activities with any candidate.
But wily campaign operatives have made a mockery of the rules, a point underscored by comedian Stephen Colbert. He transferred the reins of his super PAC, the cleverly named Making a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow, to his Daily Show alter ego, Jon Stewart.
“The Federal Election Commission has come up with a very narrow, cramped definition as to what constitutes co-ordination,” former FEC chairman Trevor Potter insisted in an interview. “You could drive a truck through it.”
To wit, all of the major super PACs active in the Republican primary race are run by former close associates of the candidates they back.
Winning Our Future, the pro-Gingrich super PAC that got $10-million from the Adelsons, is run by Mr. Gingrich’s former top fund-raiser and his ex-spokesman. The first $5-million injection it got from Mr. Adelson helped finance Mr. Gingrich’s comeback in South Carolina, where the super PAC ran more $3-million worth of ads attacking Mr. Romney’s record running Bain Capital.
Winning Our Future is pouring $6-million into ads in Florida, including one launched this week that accuses Mr. Romney of “inventing government-run health care.”
“Do we think a Gingrich White House is not going to be particularly grateful to [the Adelsons]if he wins two primaries because of them?” Mr. Potter asked.
At the very least, Mr. Gingrich’s fervent pro-Israel rhetoric – he called the Palestinians “an invented people” in a December interview on The Jewish Channel – has endeared him to Mr. Adelson, a 78-year-old billionaire known for his hard-line stand on the issue.
During a GOP debate in December, Mr. Gingrich defended his provocative statement – termed “not helpful” by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton – by insisting “the Palestinian claim to a right of return [to Israel]is based on a historically false story.
“This is a propaganda war in which our side refuses to engage and we refuse to tell the truth while the other side lies,” Mr. Gingrich added. “You’re not going to win in the long run if you’re afraid to stand firm and stand for the truth.”
That might have been his last stand. With little money of his own and facing a barrage of attack ads against him in Iowa by super PACs supporting Mr. Romney and libertarian candidate Ron Paul, the ex-Speaker finished a dismal fourth in the state’s Jan. 3 caucuses.
He likely would have been forced to end his campaign after the Jan. 10 New Hampshire primary, where he had another fourth-place finish, had it not been for Mr. Adelson.
The $10-million transfusion has allowed Winning Our Future to set up a get-out-the-vote operation that dwarfs anything the Gingrich campaign could produce on its own shoestring budget in the heavily populated Sunshine State.
And if Mr. Gingrich is still standing after Florida’s primary, he will know who to thank.
How to buy influence in U.S. politics
U.S. corporations and unions are prohibited from making direct contributions to candidates for federal office. But they can set up a political action committee (PAC) that can solicit up to $5,000 from individual executives or union members. A PAC then can contribute up to $5,000 to a politician of its choice.
Two Supreme Court rulings in 2010 cleared the way for so-called super PACs. Officially known as independent expenditure-only committees, they can take unlimited donations from corporations, unions and individuals and spend without restriction provided they do not co-ordinate their activities with a political candidate.
Another kind of political advocacy group on the rise is known as a 501(c) organization, named after the section of the U.S. tax code that refers to a tax-exempt, non-profit corporation or association. It can take unlimited donations and spend without limit. But unlike a PAC or super PAC, it does not have to disclose the names of its donors.