It seemed like just another campaign appearance – Mitt Romney taking time from the trail to address a ballroom full of well-heeled donors. It was anything but. When Romney spoke last summer at fund-raisers for a super PAC run by three of his former top aides, it marked a turning point in his campaign and, in some ways, in the modern history of campaign finance. The group, Restore Our Future, capitalized on Romney’s support to raise $57 million by the end of April and has become one of the most powerful forces in the race for the White House – the financial engine behind the fusillade of broadcast ads, most of them harshly negative, that felled his GOP challengers one by one. No candidate in the 2012 race adapted more swiftly and effectively to the rise of the super PACs in the wake of US Supreme Court and other rulings that effectively removed any barriers to individual and corporate donations to such so-called independent groups.
The other GOP contenders’ backers raised not nearly as much, and President Obama, long a harsh critic of super PACs, only recently urged his supporters to get into the game. Romney’s appearances at the fund-raisers offer a compelling case study of just how fuzzy the line between a candidate and the purportedly independent committees backing him has become. Romney says he has carefully adhered to the new rules, which allow candidates to be a “featured guest’’ at fund-raisers.
But others view the matter more skeptically. A public interest group, Democracy 21, recently asked the Justice Department to investigate what it called “illegal coordination’’ between Romney’s campaign and Restore our Future. Spokesmen for the Romney campaign and the committee have dismissed the complaint as baseless.