WASHINGTON -- Super PACs are set to be a massive force in the 2014 midterms, having collectively raised $59 million during the first half of this year. That's more than twice the amount they raised over the same period in 2011.
The unlimited-contribution groups, made possible by the Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision and a subsequent lower court ruling, are already ahead of the spending pace set in 2011 for the first six months of the election cycle. Super PACs were major players in the House, Senate and, especially, presidential races in the last two elections.
Republican groups and donors have dominated the super PAC field, spending two out of every three super PAC dollars in the 2012 campaign and nearly three out of every five in the 2010 campaign. But a similar Republican dominance has not yet emerged in the 2014 election cycle. Instead, Democratic super PACs are leading so far this year, with the seven top fundraising super PACs either having backed Democratic candidates in the past or currently supporting Democratic policy priorities.
Among the top 50 super PACs in terms of fundraising, based on Federal Election Commission filings, 24 Democratic-leaning groups have raised $37.9 million while 23 Republican-leaning groups have received just $15.6 million. Another three super PACs with no discernible party affiliation, including New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's Independence USA PAC, raised $3.1 million.
"It looks like just another round of escalation in the mutual assured money destruction wars," said Kathy Kiely, managing editor at the Sunlight Foundation, a pro-transparency nonprofit that tracks super PAC spending. "As always happens in campaigns, the side that felt disadvantaged is going to redouble their efforts and try to leapfrog their rivals."
The biggest funders of super PACs remain the mega-donors, those making six-figure contributions. The 20 donors giving $500,000 or more contributed a combined $23.6 million, or 40 percent of the total raised. The 83 donors who gave $100,000-plus combined for $34.4 million, or 58 percent of the total.
The super PAC fundraising race in the first six months of 2013 was won by Americans for Responsible Solutions, the pro-gun safety super PAC founded by former Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and her husband, former astronaut Mark Kelly, with $6.5 million. The majority of the group's haul came from small donors.
"To raise this much money in an off-election year, it's motivating us and we're in this for the long haul," said Pia Carusone, executive director of Americans for Responsible Solutions.
The biggest Democratic super PAC players in last year's congressional elections -- House Majority PAC, Senate Majority PAC and the research hub American Bridge 21st Century -- all pulled in millions as well. House Majority PAC, the biggest spender on House elections in 2012, raised $3.3 million in the first six months of the 2014 cycle.
"Our donors are excited about the work we do," said Alixandria Lapp, executive director of House Majority PAC. "Some of them were eager to invest early and to make sure we have the funds to do our work."
American Bridge pulled in $2.8 million this year as it looks to majorly increase its tracking and research operation.
Senate Majority PAC raised $2.7 million in the first six months of the year. (Because of its spending in the Massachusetts special Senate election, the group was actually required to file an FEC report covering six-and-a-half months. In that last half-month since June 30, Senate Majority PAC raised $300,000.)
The super PAC of the Service Employees International Union came in seventh with $2.2 million.
On the Republican-leaning side, the top fundraising super PAC was the newly formed Tea Party Patriots Citizens Fund with $2.1 million. When the group formed in February, Tea Party Patriots national coordinator Jenny Beth Martin said the group would not be beholden to incumbent Republican politicians. "If that means we have to defeat some of these big-government politicians in primaries, so be it," said Martin.
The financial success of the Tea Party Patriots super PAC puts a spotlight on the less-than-stellar fundraising by the establishment Republican super PACs. American Crossroads, the second-biggest super PAC spender in the 2012 election, raised about $1.9 million this year -- $2 million less than at this point in the last cycle.
Jonathan Collegio, spokesman for American Crossroads, explained that money meant for the presidential election accounted for two-thirds of the group's fundraising last cycle and that the total for 2013 is not far off from what the group expects in a non-presidential cycle.
"Although we have yet to make any hard fundraising requests this year for any of our groups, we've been encouraged by growing donor enthusiasm about the opportunity to win control of the Senate as well as the paramount need to defend our House majority and block President Obama's second-term agenda," Collegio said in an email.
The two Republican congressional super PACs -- Congressional Leadership Fund and YG Action Network -- also had relatively low first-half numbers. Congressional Leadership Fund pulled in nearly $600,000, while YG Action Network raised just $173,302.
In the post-Citizens United elections, however, Republicans have largely relied on "dark money" nonprofits, which are not required to disclose contributions, to fund their independent spending on House and Senate races. The largest spender on House races in 2012 among Republican independent groups was Grover Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform, which is a nonprofit that does not reveal its donors.
Another factor in the Republicans' fundraising decline is the dearth of single-candidate super PACs, which played a huge role in last year's presidential primary and general elections. At this point in the 2012 cycle, the pro-Mitt Romney Restore Our Future had raised $12.2 million, nearly twice the haul of the top super PAC today. By the end of the election, Restore Our Future had raised $142 million, more than any other super PAC.
There are some single-candidate super PACs operating this far ahead of the 2014 elections. The leader in this field is the pro-Mitch McConnell Kentuckians for Strong Leadership. The group has raised nearly $1.2 million, with large contributions coming from the traditional stable of big-money Republican donors, including six-figure contributions from J.W. Childs, Philip Geier, Joseph Craft, John Nau and the now-deceased Bob Perry.
Many of these candidate-specific super PACs operate as an extra vehicle for contributions from donors looking to reward or seek influence with candidates or incumbents.
West Main Street Values PAC, which supports Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), has raised just $78,000 this year, but among that was $25,000 from the political action committee of the aerospace and defense company Boeing. Graham spent the better part of two years fighting the National Labor Relations Board over a complaint against a Boeing plant in South Carolina that was ultimately dropped.
Republican Senate candidate Thom Tillis, the North Carolina House speaker, is supported by Grow NC Strong. That super PAC raised $105,010 in the first six months, with $70,000 coming from three donors appointed by the North Carolina House to the University of North Carolina Board of Regents.
And while Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) is not up for reelection until 2016, he is backed by The Fund for Louisiana's Future. The super PAC, which could support either a Senate reelection campaign or a gubernatorial bid from Vitter, has raised $781,500 this year, with almost all of it coming from businesses and businessmen in Louisiana.
"This is a really handy-dandy way, thanks to Citizens United, for people to reach out and touch, in a major league way, the folks they need on Capitol Hill to shape policy for them," said the Sunlight Foundation's Kiely.
Aaron Bycoffe contributed reporting.