Commentary: A wave of secret campaign donations is on its way

As high-powered consultants plot strategy in the race for U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer's seat, they should factor in Sandy Greiner, a 64-year-old grandmother six times over from Keota, Iowa.

Greiner, her husband and their three sons farm corn and soybeans in a town with fewer than 1,000 people in southeastern Iowa. Don't let appearances deceive you.

Greiner and people like her suddenly became more important to American politics last week because of a landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling and the stunning vote in Massachusetts.

Sandra H. Greiner is no neophyte. After 16 years in the Iowa Legislature ending in 2008, she became president of American Future Fund, a nonprofit corporation that espouses limited taxes and opposes President Barack Obama's economic policies and health care proposals.

Entities like Greiner's operate in the shadows. Their donors are anonymous. The power behind them is rarely apparent. It's impossible to track the exact amounts they spend on campaigns in any timely fashion.

Last week's Supreme Court decision opened the way for corporations and unions to spend directly on federal campaigns, which means that groups like Greiner's will be infused with yet more money. Unless federal law is changed, they and their donors will remain hidden from the voting public.

To get an idea of how they operate, look at the race to fill the seat left vacant when Sen. Edward Kennedy died in Massachusetts. That contest portends what could happen in California and in several other states this year.

As Greiner told me by phone this week, she paid attention early to Republican Scott Brown's seemingly quixotic effort to capture the seat controlled for more than half a century by the strongest Democratic dynasty in American history.

No single individual turned the tide against Democratic candidate Martha Coakley. But Greiner's American Future Fund was the first outside organization to enter the fray, launching a television ad 12 days before the election attacking Coakley over taxes.

By the time it was over, American Future Fund had spent about $500,000, and others had piled on with millions more. Republican Brown won in a stunning upset.

"Nobody saw it coming," Greiner said.

To read the complete column, visit www.sacbee.com.