WASHINGTON — If you thought the money race in the presidential campaign was already the Wild West, you haven't seen anything yet.
The Supreme Court's decision to uphold limitless political donations from corporations sets the stage for campaigns and outside groups to press boundaries even further. Hundreds of millions of dollars in outside spending will continue to pour into the presidential election as super political committees, or super PACs, are emboldened by the court's ruling and feckless federal regulators.
Super PACs are increasingly blurring the lines between their ability to spend freely on political campaigns and the legal prohibition against coordinating directly with politicians. There are renewed calls for new federal rules that would permit unlimited contributions directly to candidates or anonymous large donations.
And the U.S. watchdog agency responsible for enforcing the rules – the Federal Election Commission – has been ineffectual. The FEC's six members – three Democrats and three Republicans – have been deadlocked, unable to decide just how far super PACs can coordinate with campaigns.
Monday's court ruling, part of a challenge to a Montana law banning corporate contributions, ends for now a controversial saga in the court's 2010 Citizens United case. That case and other federal rulings have stripped away restrictions on political contributions from corporations, labor unions and millionaires and billionaires.
The case is already making its mark: Super PACs and their nonprofit arms have brought in more than $200 million in combined donations this election, with most of that going to GOP groups. The new rules have allowed major players like casino mogul Sheldon Adelson to contribute more than $20 million to support Republican candidates.
President Barack Obama's campaign said Tuesday it is feeling the pressure of outside groups, pointing out that Obama would be the first incumbent president to be outspent by Republican Mitt Romney and super PACs working in Romney's favor. Obama, of course, has his own super PAC working toward his re-election.
"From now until November, the other side will spend more money than at any time in American history," the president said Monday in Durham, N.H. "And almost all of it will be on ads that tell you, `The economy is bad, it's all Obama's fault.'" The next day, Obama – who himself broke money records by bringing in $750 million four years ago – emailed supporters a fundraising plea with the subject line, "I will be outspent."
The court reaffirmed that political speech is protected under the First Amendment even when its source is a corporation. And in an election already brimming with cash from super PACs, the decision leaves no ambiguity that the practice will continue.
In effect, the decision left Citizens United standing and "the enormous damage it is doing to our democracy and political system," said Democracy 21 President Fred Wertheimer, a frequent critic of super PACs and limitless money in politics.
Lines are blurring between the activities of super PACs and the campaigns that they are supporting. Obama has agreed to allow some senior political staff and even Cabinet members to attend fundraisers organized by Priorities USA Action, the super PAC supporting his re-election. When Romney hosted a lavish Utah retreat this weekend for his top campaign donors, officials from Republican super PACs – including Karl Rove of American Crossroads – spoke on panels or met with Romney's campaign staff.
Those activities don't violate election laws, which prohibit coordination of advertising between PACs and the campaigns they support. The two camps can talk with each other, and the candidates can appear at super PAC events. But the court's ruling will embolden groups to strip away those esoteric distinctions.
Practically speaking, super PACs and candidates have long coordinated during this election. Super PACs working in a candidate's favor employ their former advisers familiar with strategy. Some also use the same media and marketing companies.
The court's decision was a victory for those who support few restrictions, saying the First Amendment affords them the right to spend as much as they want to support or defeat a candidate. Reformers vowed to press on, hoping to craft new laws to curb what they call the corrupting influence of money in politics.
The court could have used the Montana case to revisit the issue of corporations giving money to candidates. Justice Stephen Breyer said campaign spending since 2010 "casts grave doubt on the court's supposition that independent expenditures do not corrupt or appear to do so."
Instead, the opposite happened: The high court did not revisit Citizens United. And campaign finance experts said the court's new decision makes it clear that states must follow it.
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