WASHINGTON — An unmistakable dynamic is playing out in the money game among Republican presidential candidates: New "super" political action committees are growing more powerful than the campaigns they support.
For two of the GOP front-runners, their supportive super PACs raised more money and have more cash left in the bank than the candidates' own campaigns. Helping their efforts are major financial gifts from wealthy business executives, whose contributions can be essential to the groups' continued operations.
The Mitt Romney-leaning Restore Our Future and Newt Gingrich-supportive Winning Our Future raised a combined $17 million last month and spent nearly $24 million during the period. That financial strength allowed the groups to splash the airwaves in key primary states with millions of dollars in TV ads.
The proliferation of new super PACs continues to underscore how the groups, which can raise and spend unlimited sums, are influencing the race. Their fundraising last month provides a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the identities of the rich supporters who will help elect the next president, along with details on how the millions of dollars they donated have been spent.
Restore Our Future, which had $16 million cash on hand, has been boosted by more than two dozen repeat donors. Winning Our Future, which had $2.4 million in the bank, is largely supported by casino mogul Sheldon Adelson and his wife.
Meanwhile, Romney raised $6.5 million last month and had $7.7 million left for his presidential bid, while Gingrich's presidential campaign raised $5.5 million during the period and had about $1.8 million in cash remaining.
The super PACs, as well as other groups supporting other candidates and the individual campaigns, were required to disclose their fundraising and the identities of their donors in reports filed with the Federal Election Commission by midnight Monday. Those reports also provided a snapshot of fundraising for President Barack Obama's early campaign and for Republican candidates as they battled during important primary elections in January.
During the month, GOP candidates Gingrich and Rick Santorum had briefly surged ahead of Romney but trailed the former Massachusetts governor in fundraising. Since then, Santorum has climbed remarkably in polls while Gingrich's support has eroded just as stunningly after his disappointing showing in Florida's primary.
Restore Our Future has been a boon for Romney, who has benefited greatly from the group's TV ads attacking Gingrich in particular. Such ads were paid for thanks to the financial help of repeat donors, including Marriott International Chairman J.W. Marriott Jr., who has given the super PAC $750,000 to date.
The super PAC also reported new donors, including Hewlett-Packard CEO Meg Whitman. Romney mentored Whitman, a recent unsuccessful candidate for California governor, during the 1980s at Boston-based Bain Capital, the private equity firm Romney headed. Whitman's $100,000 check came days after she joined Romney at a victory celebration in New Hampshire.
Restore Our Future counted on continued support from at least 30 repeat donors who, along with new contributors, gave a combined $6.6 million in January, according to a review of the reports by The Associated Press.
Meanwhile, Winning Our Future's $11 million in contributions during the same period came almost exclusively from Adelson, a friend of Gingrich's and a staunch supporter of Israel. Adelson and his wife, Miriam, each gave $5 million to the super PAC in January — a move that helped keep Gingrich's struggling campaign alive.
Other GOP-leaning super PACs reported major contributions.
Endorse Liberty, the group supporting Texas Rep. Ron Paul, reported roughly $2.4 million in donations, including $1.7 from the billionaire founder of PayPal, Peter Thiel of San Francisco. Thiel, who runs a hedge fund, is a libertarian who has supported Republican causes and candidates and also has donated to California's marijuana legalization ballot measure.
Red, White and Blue, a super committee supporting Santorum, raised $2.1 million in January, including $50,000 from a London-based securities firm that later was returned, a spokesman for the group said. The contribution could have violated U.S. laws against foreign contributions to American political campaigns.
The spokesman, Stuart Roy, said the money was refunded last month. Roy said contribution originated with an American executive at Liquid Capital Markets Ltd., but that the donation was mistakenly drawn from the foreign firm's accounts, necessitating its return.
Obama's campaign on Friday reported raising a combined $29.1 million in January among the campaign, the Democratic National Committee and other joint fundraising committees. The major super PAC backing Obama, Priorities USA Action, raised only $58,000 last month — mostly from a $50,000 contribution by Chicago businessman John Rogers — underscoring why Obama encouraged his supporters recently to give to the super PAC.
The reports likely will rekindle criticism of the groups, which were made possible under a 2010 Supreme Court ruling in the Citizens United case. The super PACs must legally remain independent from the candidates they support, but many are staffed with former campaign aides who have intimate knowledge of the campaigns' strategies.
Late Friday, the Supreme Court put on hold a Montana case that bore striking similarities. Two justices said the newest case provides an opportunity for the court to reconsider whether millionaires and billionaires should be allowed to continue pouring millions of dollars into the presidential election.
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