WASHINGTON -- Political spending by deep-pocketed donors and cash-rich corporations threatens to sow chaos in this year's congressional races, political consultants warn.
A billionaire or corporation writing a check for $1 million -- or even $10 million -- isn't enough to swing a presidential election. But when it comes to congressional campaigns, it could be plenty.
“You can work for months and years to develop a fundraising advantage over your opponent of $2 million, $5 million or $10 million. And all that can be wiped out in seconds by a few people giving to a super PAC," said Democratic pollster Mark Mellman.
While Republican and Democratic candidates are, in theory, equally susceptible to that kind of unlimited outside money, it’s the Democrats who sound much more alarmed.
"No one is safe, and everyone's got to protect themselves," said Democratic strategist Hank Sheinkopf. "Super PACs can strike at any time they want."
"There's sort of no way to fend it off because it's so much," said progressive strategist Mike Lux. "It's just so much money that even when you know it's coming, it's hard to deal with."
Lux said his biggest worry is the last-minute ad blitz -- a staple of elections dating back to the '90s. Now with the rise in outside money, election-eve ads can hit "at an even more massive level,” he said. The result: candidates who "can't compete with an overwhelming mass of money at the end that swamps the close races."
The Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision, along with a subsequent lower court ruling, struck down post-Watergate caps on political contributions by corporations and individuals. As a result, super PACs fueled mostly by contributions of $500,000 or more have already pumped $78 million into the Republican presidential primary, outspending everyone else and flooding the airwaves with negative ads.
Successful congressional candidates in 2008 spent an average of $1.4 million to win a House seat and $7.4 million to get elected to the Senate, according to the Campaign Finance Institute. Potential spending from super PACs -- and their secretive 501(c)(4) cousins -- dwarfs those amounts.
One super PAC, whose wealthy donors are targeting incumbents from both parties, has already spent nearly $1 million in just eight congressional primaries. But that's widely considered to be just a minor foreshadowing of what is to come in congressional races in the general election.
And while most outside money will likely be targeted for maximum ideological payoff, in some cases it could also be personal.
"If somebody is pissed off at a particular member for a piece of legislation -- even a line of questioning at a committee hearing -- I absolutely see that kind of revenge giving," Lux said.
Sheinkopf said he imagines there will be districts where people with money "hate the incumbent or the challenger" and can now pull out their checkbook and underwrite a deluge of negative ads. The result, Sheinkopf argued, is that "personal pique will substitute for democratic reasoning." Even candidates who are feeling confident are likely to hoard money they might otherwise have sent to their party committees or to members of their party in closer races, Sheinkopf predicted.
"It will mean the continued breakdown of both parties, because it's now every man and woman for themselves," Sheinkopf said.
With all that money sloshing around outside the official campaigns, said Gary Kalman, federal legislative office director for the U.S. PIRG consumer group, "there's going to be certain people that are going to be little bitty players in their own elections."
Meanwhile, competition for voter eyeballs grows more ferocious. "What's different is you used to be an only child or in a well-behaved family. Now you're in a family of eight, and if you don't eat your food quickly, it's going to disappear," said Democratic media consultant Will Robinson.
Federal Election Commission rules still require that broadcast stations give candidates for federal office "reasonable access" to the airwaves at the lowest cost available. So super PACs can't actually push candidates who have already bought ads out of the way.
"But what they can do is come in and buy every available piece of air around them," Robinson said. Some media markets will sell out, as Florida, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia mostly did in the 2008 general election. "Things are very Darwinian right now," Robinson said.
Robinson predicted that advertising scarcity will also extend to prime online ad space. In key swing states, "online is beginning to disappear already," he said.
Another feature of the post-Citizens United world is that while super PACs have to disclose their donors -- not in real time, but eventually -- donors who don't want anyone to know they're behind a given ad campaign are allowed to launder unlimited political contributions through tax-exempt groups, known as 501(c)(4) and 501(c)(6) organizations for the Internal Revenue Code regulations that cover them.
Those ad campaigns make it impossible for the public to know for sure where the money is coming from -- but, Lux contended, not necessarily that hard to guess. "It'll be coming from the banks, number one, because everybody hates them so badly," he said. "Certainly oil companies will want to hide their dollars. Some of the big telecom companies."
Not everyone is unhappy with the new order, of course. "I'm more optimistic about the current system than I was prior to Citizens United," said Republican strategist Keith Appell. "Both sides can raise plenty of money," he added. "My feeling is as long as the playing field is level, then that’s the best of all worlds. In the end, it nets out fine."
Democratic political strategist James Carville said that the ability to spend unlimited sums endows big donors with so much power that they don't even have to use it.
"You can threaten," he said. "The real impact of this is, let's say you want something -- there's a bill that you really care about -- you go to someone kind of on the fence, and usually you would say, 'I'll do a fundraiser for you.' Now you say, 'If you don't vote for this, I'm going to dump a million dollars on you.'" Or, he continued, "'If you don't vote to give me a pollution exemption, I'm going to croak you.'"
"The potential for mischief here is pretty good," Carville said.
Las Vegas casino owner Sheldon Adelson and his family have kept Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich alive in the primaries, with at least $10 million in contributions to the pro-Gingrich super PAC.
But Adelson's ability to spend unlimited sums will also make him hugely influential the next time he wants something from Congress, noted Carville. "He could say, 'Anybody votes against this? I'm worth $23 billion.'"
Indeed, all the moguls need is few examples of "croaking" people who crossed them, Carville said, "and you establish the principle."
Dan Froomkin is senior Washington correspondent for The Huffington Post. You can send him an email, bookmark his page, subscribe to his RSS feed, follow him on Twitter or on Facebook, and/or become a fan and get email alerts when he writes.