• Florida primary election results
• Romney crushes Gingrich in Florida GOP primary
• With win, Romney faces tough opponents in long war
• Why Romney won -- Why Gingrich lost
• After loss, Gingrich pledges long primary fight
• Exit polls: Florida GOP voters hurt by economy
ORLANDO, Fla. — Outside fundraising groups called super PACs have spent roughly $44 million, mostly in attack ads, in opening weeks of what the Republican presidential candidates promise will be a long and protracted primary fight.
The super PAC backing Mitt Romney, Restore Our Future, alone spent $17.4 million, with 93 percent of that money used to attack rival Newt Gingrich, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. In return, a super PAC backing Gingrich, Winning Our Future, doled out $9 million, more than a third of which was spent on anti-Romney ads.
Never before have outside groups wielded such financial influence over a presidential campaign, and only now is the public even going to learn who is behind the super PACs. The Federal Election Commission will for the first time Wednesday make public the names of donors to the super PACs. The groups had until midnight Tuesday to provide the FEC with lists of their donors.
Created by the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision that allowed corporations and labor unions to spend money on campaigns, the super PACs can raise and spend unlimited amounts of cash as long as they don’t coordinate with the campaigns they support.
After just four nominating contests in January, the super PACs already account for nearly half of all television ads bought so far, according to the Wesleyan Media Project. Meanwhile, ads funded by the candidates themselves dropped 40 percent.
Among the fundraising reports that trickled out on Tuesday night was that of American Crossroads, the Republican super PAC set up by former President George W. Bush’s top political adviser, Karl Rove.
The group reported raising $51 million in 2011, the Associated Press first reported. Dallas businessman Harold Simmons was one of the largest contributors, giving the group $5 million last November while his holding company, Contran Corp., donated an additional $2 million.
While incumbent presidents have traditionally had a major fundraising advantage heading into a general election, fundraising by groups like the Crossroads PAC may help level the playing field, said Republican strategist Matt Mackowiak.
“It’s hard to overstate the impact that super PACs have had — and will have — on the race.” Mackowiak said.
Billionaire casino mogul Sheldon Adelson and his wife single-handedly resuscitated Gingrich’s campaign in early January, when Gingrich was being hit by a string of attack ads run by the pro-Romney Restore Our Future.
The Adelsons quickly pumped $10 million into the pro-Gingrich PAC, Winning Our Future, and Gingrich’s campaign recovered quickly enough to win the South Carolina primary.
Reports also revealed that Jon Huntsman Sr. provided roughly $1.9 million of the $2.7 million that he raised for Our Destiny, the outside group supporting his son’s previous presidential bid.