Chalk up another win for the law of unintended consequences. When federal courts ruled in 2010 against restricting donations to political action committees, Republican strategists rejoiced. Here, they thought, was a way for the GOP's deep-pocketed donors to gain an advantage over President Barack Obama's fundraising machine.
But look what happened. "Super PACs," as the newly empowered political action committees are known, have mutated like election-year Godzillas, wreaking havoc in an increasingly bloody Republican primary campaign.
Last month, the super PACs that support Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul raised more money than the candidates' official campaign organizations did. The super PACs, which are legally independent from the campaigns, spent a combined $28 million and ended the month with $19 million in cash on hand.
Along the way, they created a new list of wealthy kingmakers on whom the candidates now depend for their political survival. Without gambling tycoon Sheldon Adelson, who (along with his wife) has pumped $10 million into Mr. Gingrich's super PAC, the former House speaker would be back on the lecture tour. Without money from Wyoming investor Foster Friess, Mr. Santorum never would have made it to the top of the polls. And without his own short list of financiers led by Texas' Harold C. Simmons, Mr. Romney wouldn't have had the resources to fight off their attacks.
Under the old system, which limited individuals to $2,500 in contributions, candidates had to scour the country for as many donors as they could find. Now, one or two deep-pocketed backers can keep a campaign alive.
Under the old system, Mr. Romney -- who started out with a big advantage in traditional fundraising -- might have been close to wrapping up the nomination by now. But as long as Mr. Santorum and Mr. Gingrich have super PACs to fund television advertising for them, the struggle will continue.
The lesson for future candidates is clear: Don't make the mistake that early dropouts Tim Pawlenty and Michele Bachmann made. Before you run, make sure you have a billionaire in your corner.
Of course, the new system has its critics, including even Mr. Gingrich's sugar daddy, Mr. Adelson. "I'm against very wealthy people ... influencing elections," the eighth-wealthiest man in America told Forbes. "But as long as it's doable, I'm going to do it."
That's a widely shared sentiment. Wealthy Americans are popping up all over to fund the new super PACs, including liberals who might have been expected to oppose the idea on principle.
Film producer Jeffrey Katzenberg and television comedian Bill Maher are the top Obama super PAC donors so far, and the money is likely to flow ever faster in the run-up to November.
What will that mean? In all likelihood, a particularly nasty campaign.
The super PACs, with their elaborate charade of independence from the campaigns, make it easier to run negative advertising -- because candidates can claim that they had nothing to do with it.
In Michigan last week, Mr. Romney's super PAC, inspiringly named Restore Our Future, was running a television commercial slashing Mr. Santorum for his Senate votes in favor of appropriations bills. A female narrator intones disapprovingly, "Santorum even voted to raise his own pay!"
At the end of the commercial, instead of "I'm Mitt Romney, and I approve this message," there's a disclaimer: "Not authorized by any candidate."
But is that really true? When he was asked last year whether he had any responsibility for the super PAC's operations, Mr. Romney did his best to appear shocked, even though his super PAC is staffed by his former aides and he appeared at one of its events.
"My goodness," he replied. "If we cooperate in any way, shape or form, we go to the big house."
Not really. The Federal Election Commission doesn't put anyone in jail. It only levies modest fines -- normally long after an election is over.
Moreover, the FEC allows "cooperation" between a candidate and his super PAC as long as the candidate doesn't "coordinate" his campaign with the independent effort. Candidates can even help raise money for their super PACs as long as they don't direct how that money is spent. It even may be legal for a candidate to appear in an ad paid for by his "independent" super PAC; when the FEC was asked to rule on one such ad (starring Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb.), it deadlocked, leaving the issue unresolved.
In the Supreme Court decision known as Citizens United, which helped pave the way for these innovations, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote that he was confident that unlimited campaign funding would not harm the democratic process.
"Independent expenditures, including those made by corporations, do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption," he wrote. "The appearance of influence or access, furthermore, will not cause the electorate to lose faith in our democracy."
We're about to learn whether Justice Kennedy's pronouncement -- which took the risky form of a forecast, not a legal judgment -- was right.
Doyle McManus is a columnist for The Los Angeles Times ( firstname.lastname@example.org ). First Published February 28, 2012 5:00 AM