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In wake of court rulings, new political groups intervene in primaries

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When Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet fended off a tough primary challenge from former State House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, he got a little bit of help from a new kind of political player, which spent $50,000 to make phone calls promoting the incumbent, according to a report filed with the Federal Election Commission.

The League of Conservation Voters Victory Fund--a group that registered under a designation created by the FEC in late July called an Independent Expenditure Committee--paid for the phone calls.

The sole purpose of independent expenditure committees is to make independent expenditures – place ads, make phone calls or engage in other political activities to influence the outcome of an election. They are to do so independently and without the approval of or coordination with any candidate. Right now, there are only seven groups registered as IE committees, with the League of Conservation Voters Victory Fund – an environmental group that registered just a couple days before they paid for the phone calls – one of the first to report political activity. (See below for a list of registered committees)

According to two FEC advisories, “political committees that intend to make only independent expenditures…may solicit and accept unlimited contributions from individuals, political committees, corporations and labor organizations for the purpose of making independent expenditures.” One of the FEC advisory opinions, which references Citizens United but is a response to a circuit court ruling involving Speechnow.org, ruled that a group called Commonsense Ten can receive and spend unlimited amounts from all but a narrow category of prohibited sources--foreign nationals, federal contractors, national banks and corporations created by Congress.

An FEC spokesperson, Julia Queen, said that while the agency hasn’t had a chance to establish complete rules for independent expenditure committees yet, groups should use what is written in the advisory opinions as a guideline.

According to Queen, the only thing the new committees must do is file a registration form and submit a letter of intent that states it will only make independent expenditures. It seems that the seven groups already registered as IE committees are disclosing expenditures, including how much they've spent, who it was paid to and which candidate the money is intended to support or oppose. They are filing these forms within 24 or 48 hours of the money being spent, similar to electioneering reports.  (See below for a list of IE committees and links to forms files on the FEC website.)

Currently there is no way to tell who is funding the committees because there are no specific disclosure rules in place yet. It's also unclear how this will be addressed in the future. However, in the case of the group supporting Bennet, the time span between the group forming and it making expenditures is so short it’s likely that the group’s money came from its founder, the League of Conservation Voters. If by chance the FEC establishes rules similar to what already exists for other political committees, then reporting might take place on a quarterly basis, with the frequency of reporting increasing closer to election day.

Other groups to file as independent expenditure committees include a Nevada-based group called Americans for New Leadership, organized to oppose Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev. According to their website, the group is, “dedicated to doing [their] part to help by letting every single Nevadan know what damage Harry has done to our State and our Country.” In an effort to carry out their mission they’ve put together a video that supports Republican challenger Sharon Angle while attacking Reid for one of his campaign ads. The end of the video states in writing that the video was not authorized, nor paid for, by any candidate. Records kept by the FEC show that the group has spent $37,000 this year independent of any candidate.

This development in the campaign finance world takes the issue of spending limits a step further than the Citizens United ruling did. The outcome of the Supreme Court case enables corporations to spend freely on their own accord in support of or opposition to candidates.

The Sunlight Foundation Reporting Group will continue to follow these committees and monitor the FEC for rules created.

Committee ID Committee Name FEC link containing forms filed by the Committee
C00482620 ARIZONANS WORKING TOGETHER Link
C00484295 CALIFORNIANS FOR FISCALLY CONSERVATIVE LEADERSHIP Link
C00484642 COMMONSENSE TEN Link
C00485821 AMERICANS FOR NEW LEADERSHIP Link
C00486845 LEAGUE OF CONSERVATION VOTERS VICTORY FUND Link
C00486878 PEOPLE'S MAJORITY No data available online yet
C00486688 FLORIDA IS NOT FOR SALE Link