WASHINGTON — When a presidential candidate throws in the towel, what can a "super" PAC that once supported the campaign spend its money on?
Pretty much anything it wants.
Until now, the super political action committee working in Rick Santorum's favor spent nearly all its cash – more than $4.5 million – on television ads for Santorum. But his departure from the GOP primaries leaves the Red, White and Blue Fund with a foggier mission.
The new phenomenon of super PACs this election cycle also has raised new questions about how, or whether, they should go out of business when their favored candidate bails out. Some have closed down, saying it wouldn't be right to spend donors' money on another cause or candidate.
For super PACs that outlast a presidential candidate, the rules governing them offer possibilities for future spending, including on issues or candidates that have nothing to do with the initial campaigns the PACs were formed to support. One of the few restrictions would be turning over any remaining cash to a campaign, which wouldn't be allowed. But campaign organizations can themselves be turned into new super PACs.
Robert Kelner, a campaign finance expert at the law firm Covington & Burling, said super PACs "can make ads to say, `vote for Romney' or `here are the 50 Republican House candidates we like.'"
"There are lots of possibilities," he said. "Still, ads are expensive."
Super PACs have proliferated this election cycle, thanks in part to federal court rulings that effectively stripped away campaign finance rules and allowed them to accept unlimited and effectively anonymous contributions from wealthy individuals, corporations and others.
Nearly every major presidential candidate had a super PAC in their corner. The Make Us Great Again PAC supported Texas Gov. Rick Perry's White House bid and, at one point, had planned to spend more than $50 million to help elect him. GOP front-runner Mitt Romney also has one – it's called Restore Our Future and run by a former adviser – that has spent at least $35 million on ads that have halted his rivals' momentum.
Still, the political committees rarely stockpile large amounts of cash because they spend it so quickly. Many times, they operate paycheck to paycheck. The group supporting Santorum spent roughly $500,000 per week in recent months even as financial reports showed it began March with less than that amount, or $364,000, in the bank. Sometimes, it waited until the 11th hour to decide to book a major ad in a new state, a strategic choice when looking at its balance sheets.
Many of the groups have major fundraisers, like Wyoming businessman Foster Friess, who has contributed $1.7 million to Red, White and Blue since last year. Friess told The Associated Press on Tuesday that he would now support Romney, suggesting he might not give more money to the group supporting Santorum.
The unchartered territory for super PACs has also created unusual situations. The Federal Election Commission granted a request by Perry to convert his presidential campaign into a super PAC.
The Red, White and Blue Fund has made no clear decision on what's next now that Santorum is out. In emails, it called Santorum a "great leader" and a "principled conservative," hinting that it would still support his causes by saying the fight goes on even as Santorum's campaign will not. Red, White and Blue Fund adviser Stuart Roy said the group has yet to make an announcement on the super PAC's future.
Dozens of other super PACs also are supporting Romney – or at least opposing President Barack Obama. The largest of all Republican super PACs, American Crossroads, announced Tuesday that its sister organization would begin airing ads in six states hitting Obama on energy policy.
Obama has a super PAC, Priorities USA Action, that has raised $6 million to go after Republicans and help defend him from their attacks. The group had about $2.8 million on hand as of the end of February.
All told, super PACs have spent more than $55 million on the presidential race since last summer, at times eclipsing the ad spending of the very campaigns they support.
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