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SuperPACS Are Back And They Are More Powerful Than Ever


When presidential hopefuls declare that they are running, they usually already have the backing of millionaires and billionaires these days. All that money is not going to the candidates themselves, though. That's heavily regulated in the name of preventing corruption. But donors can give as much as they want to super PACs. These groups aren't officially affiliated with the candidates, but they are changing the nature of presidential campaigns, as NPR's Peter Overby reports.

PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: Florida Senator Marco Rubio has a super PAC called Conservative Solutions. Well, technically it's not his. He can't coordinate his messages or strategy with it. But the super PAC is gearing up right now as Rubio appears to announce his candidacy tonight. Ted Cruz, the Texas Senator, is already officially in the race, and so is a super PAC - excuse me, his super PACs. There are four of them, networked Keep the Promise and Keep the Promise numbers I, II and III. Claims were leaked that they would pull in $31 million the first week. The treasurer for Keep the Promise didn't respond for interview requests. The network is just one of this year's developments in super PACs, apparently meant to give donors more control over the activities they're paying so handsomely for.

DAVID KEATING: Maybe certain donors want to talk about some issues, but they don't want to talk about others.

OVERBY: This is David Keating. He's an advocate of deregulating political campaigns and the president of the Center for Competitive Politics.

KEATING: Could be other donors like certain tactics and want to speak through, say, Internet ads as opposed to TV ads, or maybe they want to do positive ads instead of negative ads.

OVERBY: Keating is one of the guys who invented super PACs by winning a lawsuit back in 2010. He says it's a matter of free speech. The real heavyweight super PAC of the Republican primaries is in the camp of Florida Governor Jeb Bush. It's called Right to Rise. Bush hasn't announced yet, but he's been busy raising money for Right to Rise. At one event in New York City, it took $100,000 just to get you through the door. Bush aides tried to dismiss rumors that Right to Rise would raise 100 million by July 1. The thing to keep in mind here is that regular contributions to candidates are capped at $2,700 per person. Contributions to super PACs have no limit. Ken Gross, one of Washington's top campaign finance lawyers, says the balance of power seems to be shifting even more to the outside groups.

KEN GROSS: This may be the election where we see more outside money than we see candidate money.

OVERBY: The 2016 election is just the second presidential contest since super PACs were invented, and things change fast.

DIANA DWYER: Everyone will get more and more inventive when the stakes are the highest.

OVERBY: Diana Dwyer is a political scientist at California State University at Chico. She's studied and written about super PACs and other independent political groups.

DWYER: You know, it's evolution, and it's finding new ways to do the same kinds of campaign activities that candidates and parties have been doing for hundreds of years.

OVERBY: And right now, that new way is the super PAC, the best friend of anyone running for president. Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Overby has covered Washington power, money, and influence since a foresighted NPR editor created the beat in 1994.