WASHINGTON — Relaxed campaign spending rules unleashed a torrent of cash in the 2010 elections. In 2012, it could be a deluge.
Court rulings and revised regulations have made it easier for donors to give as much money to campaigns as they want — and keep it secret. That could shape next year's race for the White House, and very likely the battle to control Congress.
Even now, several Republicans who are running for president have so-called "super PACS" boosting their coffers. These are independent, amped-up versions of the traditional political action committee, but they're free from the former restrictions on donations and spending.
"We're looking at what will be the most expensive election cycle in the history of the world," said Bill Burton, a former Obama White House aide who now runs a super PAC to help finance President Barack Obama's re-election effort.
Super PACs are supposed to be free from any influence by the candidates or their campaigns. But as with Burton's own ties to the president, outside groups that back Texas Gov. Rick Perry, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Minnesota U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann are stocked with people who have strong connections to the candidate.
There's little question that 2012 will reach a new height in campaign spending. Campaigns invariably become more expensive from one cycle to the next. The 2008 election cost $5.3 billion, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan campaign watchdog group. It could be close to $6 billion next year.
It's also worth noting that contribution limits remain unchanged for the candidates' own campaign committees: $2,500 per donor for the primary election and $2,500 for the general.
In contrast, super PACS and other related independent groups have become symbols of the new Wild West of political spending.
"Now (a donor) can go to a super PAC and write a check for literally any amount: $5,000, $50,000, $500,000," said Michael Beckel, a Center for Responsive Politics spokesman. "The sky's the limit."
It's the result of a Supreme Court decision last year, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. The high court said that corporations, unions and others could spend unlimited amounts of money on ads that favored the election or defeat of candidates.
The FEC further tweaked the rules to require donor disclosure only when the contribution is earmarked for a specific ad.
The floodgates opened.
Last year more than 300 nonpolitical party-affiliated groups spent $266 million to influence the midterm congressional elections. They included 84 super PACs.
In a post-election report, the nonpartisan public advocacy group Public Citizen found that nearly half the outside spending groups didn't reveal their donors. In addition, the top 10 revealed the sources for only $1 out of every $4 they spent on the campaign.
That trend is likely to continue in 2012.
"Control of the Senate is up for grabs, you have a very competitive presidential election and the first re-election campaign for the new Republican House," said Jonathan Collegio, a spokesman for American Crossroads, a conservative super PAC that played a pivotal role in the 2010 campaign. "These factors will cause a record amount of money to be spent by conservative and liberal groups. Literally, everything is at stake."
American Crossroads and its allied group, Crossroads GPS, are the brainchild of Karl Rove, the political guru to former President George W. Bush, and Ed Gillespie, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee. Together, the groups raised and spent more than $70 million last year, not all of it disclosed.
They've promised to more than triple that amount in the 2012 campaign.
Among the contests in their sights is the Missouri U.S. Senate race in which Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill is running for a second term. Both Crossroads groups already have spent several hundred thousand dollars this year on ads against her.
"She's going to be the focal point of Republican efforts to gain control of the Senate," Collegio said.
Missouri Democratic strategist Roy Temple said Republican-backed super PACS were a big problem for Democrats last year. He thinks it could boomerang.
"In 2012, if handled properly, voters may very well hold it against the candidates who are propped up by these groups," Temple said.
Still, McCaskill will be aided by super PACs from her own allies, including one set up to support Senate Democrats.
Meanwhile, two campaign watchdog groups, the Campaign Legal Center and Democracy 21, asked the Internal Revenue Service this week to investigate whether certain independent spending groups merit their tax-free-status.
But for now, the outlook will be for "more unregulated contributions, more undisclosed money and even greater pressure placed on candidates," said Anthony J. Corrado Jr., an expert on campaign finance at Colby College in Maine.
Indulging in a bit of understatement, he said: "This is going to be a very well-funded race."
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