Outside groups that funded numerous attack ads in the GOP primaries collected more than $49 million in donations in 2011, with huge contributions coming from billionaires, corporations and labor unions, something that would have been illegal were it not for pivotal court decisions in early 2010.
The top recipient among these so-called "super PACS" was Restore Our Future, which raised $30.2 million to assist the candidacy of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney -- that's more than what was raised by the official campaign committees of any of Romney's GOP opponents.
The Center for Public Integrity reviewed Federal Election Commission documents filed by super PACs that spent money to support or defeat a presidential candidate in one of the primaries. When considering all super PACs in 2011, total contributions were almost $100 million.
Restore Our Future, which has close ties to the Romney camp, has spent at least $17.5 million so far this campaign, nearly $11 million in Florida, where Romney won handily Tuesday night.
The $49 million total does not include the $10 million in donations that casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and his wife gave to a pro-Newt Gingrich super PAC, Winning Our Future, which were made in January and will be disclosed in a few weeks.
Super PACs were created following the Citizens United Supreme Court decision and a lower court ruling in early 2010. The high court eliminated the ban on corporations and labor unions financing ads to urge people to vote for or against a candidate. A federal appeals court decision led to the creation of the super PACs, which can collect unlimited donations and spend the funds on ads supporting or opposing a candidate.
The groups are prohibited, however, from coordinating their activities with the candidate committees.
To give a little perspective, an individual can give a maximum of $2,500 to a candidate for the primary. Of the roughly 2,900 donors to all super PACs so far in the 2012 election cycle, the average donation was about $33,500.
It would take about 39,250 people giving the maximum donation to reach the total raised by super PACs -- that's about 13 contributors per one super PAC donor.
Thanks to the courts, what we're left with now is "a world of unlimited money in politics," said Meredith McGehee, policy director for the Campaign Legal Center. "The few rules on the books can be easily circumvented by anyone trying to influence elections, and that is what has happened."
Unlimited money in politics creates a "combustible cocktail" that allows "those who can marshal enormous amounts of wealth to control who controls the power," she said. "This will drown out the voices of the average Americans."
Not everyone thinks that money and politics are a bad mix.
"I think the regime allows for more spending, which I think is generally a good thing," said Brad Smith, former FEC commissioner and co-founder of the Center for Competitive Politics. "Added spending helps voters understand the issues and put candidates on a spectrum. It informs voters."
The pro-Romney PAC Restore Our Future got a big boost from wealthy investors, records show. Of the nearly $18 million it raised in the second half of 2011, friends from Bain Capital, the private equity firm where Romney served as CEO, gave at least $750,000. The largest donors were Julian Robertson of Tiger Management LLC and Paul Singer of Elliott Management Corp. Each gave $1 million.
Robertson is a hedge fund pioneer and wealthy investor. Singer is known for, among other investments, buying other nations' bad debt and collecting on it for a profit. Rooney Holdings Inc., a Tulsa, Okla., construction company, also gave $1 million.
Chris Shumway of Shumway Capital gave $750,000. Bob Perry, a Texas homebuilder with deep pockets for GOP causes , also gave the group $500,000.
The second largest haul among the presidential super PACs was Make Us Great Again, which supported Texas Gov. Rick Perry. It raised $5.5 million with more than $1.3 million coming from oil companies.
Priorities USA, a super PAC supporting Barack Obama, has raised $4.4 million. Its top donor is Jeffrey Katzenberg of DreamWorks Animation who gave $2 million. It is also a favorite of labor unions.
Endorse Liberty Inc., the pro-Ron Paul super PAC, received $1 million in 2011 with $900,000 coming from Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal, which was later sold to eBay.
The biggest super PAC of them all is American Crossroads, when considered together with its nonprofit sister group, Crossroads GPS. The two raised $51 million in 2011, according to the organizations.
Conservative groups will need as much money as they can scrape together to beat President Barack Obama, who raised $128 million in 2011 for his campaign, compared to Romney's $57 million.
David Donald and Aaron Mehta contributed to this report.
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