Sunlight on super PACs


It's a big day in politics: Voters in Florida are casting ballots in their hotly contested GOP presidential primary; voters in Oregon's 1st Congressional District are picking a replacement for ex-Rep. David Wu, a Democrat. Here in Washington, we'll be hovering over computer screens and hitting the refresh button in hopes of learning who is trying to influence those contests and beyond.

Tuesday is the deadline for committees active in the 2012 races for the White House, Senate and the U.S. House to file campaign finance reports with the Federal Election Commission showing receipts and expenditures through Dec. 30. It's the first presidential race to include super PACs, the shadowy groups created following two 2010 court rulings that shook up the nation's system for regulating campaign finance and, for most, this will be the first time they have to disclose any information about sources of funding.

Although the groups are permitted to accept funds in unlimited amounts, early returns show that not all super PACs are operating on super-sized donations: Most of the donations to Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow, the super PAC created by comedian Stephen Colbert to satirize the campaign finance system, were well under $1,000. Contributors came from all across the country and a wide range of professions: bankers, factory workers, soldiers, doctors, computer programmers, and a group identified as the "Sticky Fingers Band." The comedian, who announced in an email that his fundraising had topped the $1 million mark as of Monday, ended 2011 with more than $673,000 in the bank, suggesting he can continue to be a mischievious factor in subsequent primaries and caucuses.

The 9-9-9 Fund, created to help Herman Cain's now-suspended campaign, reported more than $617,000 in contributions. None appear to be more than the $5,000 legal limit for traditional PACs, although 9-9-9 notified the FEC that it intends to raise funds in unlimited amounts. PAC treasurer Scott MacKenzie made $12,000 in consulting fees and the PAC spent more than $32,000 to acquire email lists — raising one of the interesting unanswered questions about super PACs: What will the orphan PACs — those whose candidates have dropped out of the race — do with their left over assets? The 9-9-9 Fund ended the year with more than $200,000 in the bank.

We'll be tracking the super PAC reports all day here at Sunlight and writing about some of the interesting things we're finding. We'll also provide a chart to track the numbers, including buttons for downloadable .csv files so interested citizens and journalists can manipulate the data yourselves. Check back with us throughout the day. Journalists and bloggers: If you produce an interesting story using the data you got here, email us the link so we can share it on our pages.

Meanwhile, we're providing some background for those of you trying to get a handle on the brave new world of unlimited political money.