WASHINGTON — Dubbed "super PACs" and flush with millions of dollars, outside groups backing and attacking Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich include a hotel magnate, a casino mogul and former partners at Romney's private equity firm. They're all over the airwaves in the early voting states, at times spending as much as the Republican presidential candidates themselves.
The names of these super political action committees – "Winning Our Future" and "Restore Our Future," for example – don't give any clues to the average voter who's behind them. And though big money has always been a part of big elections, this year's efforts are something new, a result of major court rulings easing spending limits by groups not directly linked to the candidates.
In many cases, donors' names will remain a mystery for at least weeks longer. But some are known.
Last week, the pro-Gingrich Winning Our Future PAC received $5 million from Las Vegas billionaire Sheldon Adelson. The group is expected to use the cash for new television advertisements in this month's primary elections – $3.4 million of it in South Carolina – as the former House speaker tries to overtake front-runner Romney in the race for the GOP nomination.
The group said Sunday it was planning to run a half-hour film assailing Romney's tenure at the investment firm Bain Capital. Adelson is one of wealthiest people in America, and his huge contribution coincides with tough comments by Gingrich in support of Israel, a signature issue of Adelson's. Gingrich in December said that Palestinians were an "invented" people, and he has warned about the consequences of Iran developing nuclear weapons, an important issue to Israel.
The film and expected ad purchases by Winning Our Future are the latest salvos in support of Gingrich, who was hammered by the pro-Romney group, Restore Our Future, with $3 million in attack ads during the Iowa caucuses. That Romney-boosting group is planning at least $2.3 million in South Carolina.
It's a sign that ad spending among super PACs is ramping up dramatically. Some outside groups, such as GOP-leaning American Crossroads, are largely holding off spending until the general election.
The latest help for Gingrich is a timely boost for the candidate, whose campaign only months ago reported more than $1 million in debt. The aid is largely thanks to Adelson, the head of the Las Vegas Sands Corp.
Gingrich's major campaign support by longtime allies isn't unique. While a casino mogul has come to his aid, so have venture capitalists for their old boss, former Massachusetts Gov. Romney.
Restore Our Future, run by former Romney adviser Carl Forti, raised more than $12 million during the first half of 2011, bolstered in part by former Bain executives and Romney friends. Edward Conard, a Bain vice president who sat on the boards of several of the firm's companies, gave $1 million in April – a donation that was initially credited to a short-lived corporation that Conard set up. Bain managing director Paul Edgerly and his wife, Sandra, gave $500,000 each in May.
The PAC also received $500,000 from Marriott International Inc. CEO J.W. Marriott Jr. and Marriott's brother, Richard, the chairman of Host Hotels and Resorts. Romney, whose first name is Willard, was named after the Marriotts' father, who was close friends with his own father, George Romney. Mitt Romney also served for years on Marriott's board of directors.
The CEO of New York hedge fund Moore Capital Management, Louis Moore Bacon, also gave $500,000.
Other contributions have been more opaque. Campaign finance records show Restore Our Future received $1 million checks apiece from Eli Publishing Inc. and F8 LLC, both registered to the same address in Provo, Utah. Eli Publishing is registered to Steven Lund, a founder of Nu Skin Enterprises, which was a sponsor of the very Salt Lake City Olympics that Romney organized.
Other super PACs, including Rick Perry-leaning Make Us Great Again, have also spent millions of dollars in Iowa and South Carolina this primary season. Even the Red, White and Blue Fund, supportive of Rick Santorum, has already spent $200,000 in South Carolina and is expected to spend more.
Scores of contributors to all the groups will remain secret until Jan. 31, when some of the super PACs are required to report their finances to the Federal Election Commission. That's after the New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries – and the same day as Florida's primary – essentially leaving voters in the dark about who might be influencing campaigns for the White House.
The heavy influence of super PACs has been in line with what political operatives and campaign-finance watchdogs have long anticipated this election, following a handful of federal court cases – including the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling in 2010 – that stripped away some limits on campaign contributions. The new super PACs can't coordinate directly with campaigns, but many of them that are active in this election are staffed by longtime supporters of the candidates.
Campaign finance watchdogs have long criticized the super PAC donations. Democracy 21 President Fred Wertheimer has said big-dollar donations have been arranged in a manner to circumvent federal disclosure laws. The PACs, for their part, say they're simply following established rules and exercising their free-speech rights.
Follow Jack Gillum at http://twitter.com/jackgillum