PACs, Super PACs and the influence of election spending

Sep 29, 2020, 9:15 AM
4th Congressional District, Burgess Owens pulls ahead 2,095 votes in Utah’s 4th District...
Rep. Ben McAdams, and Republican challenger Burgess Owens both pictured in 2020 file photos. (Scott G Winterton and Steve Griffin, Deseret News)
(Scott G Winterton and Steve Griffin, Deseret News)

More and more frequently, political ad spending comes not from candidates or their campaigns, but from PACs — political action committees. 

You’ve heard it before: “The so-and-so committee is solely responsible for the content of this ad, and not any political candidate.”

They’re not new, but their influence continues to grow as the result of relatively recent court decisions. Here’s what you need to know about PACs and their spending on elections. 

What are PACs?

PACs raise and spend money to elect or defeat candidates. They can give up to $5,000 to a candidate committee per election (primary, general or special). 

A political action committee is any person, group, club, organization or collection of individuals (except a candidate dealing with his or her own funds) expecting to receive donations or make expenditures to support or oppose any candidate or ballot proposition.

The first PAC started in 1944 to raise money for the re-election of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

PACs can also give up to $5,000 per election to any other PAC. They can also donate up to $15,000 to any national political party.

Find out more about limits on contributions to candidates here.

Unlimited spending through super PACs

Super PACs can raise unlimited funds from individuals, corporations, unions and other groups.

These committees came into existence in 2010 through two court decisions: Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (FEC) and Speechnow.org v. FEC.

In the latter case, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that PACs that did not make contributions to candidates, parties or other PACs could accept unlimited donations from individuals, unions and corporations (both for-profit and not-for-profit).

Leadership PACs

A leadership PAC is a political committee that is directly or indirectly formed, financed, maintained or controlled by a candidate or federal office holder. Members of Congress and other political leaders often establish these non-connected committees to support candidates for federal and nonfederal offices.

Connected PACs

Businesses, non-profits, labor unions, trade groups or health organizations form connected PACs. 

Connected PACs receive and raise money generally from managers and shareholders of a corporation or members of a non-profit organization, labor union or other interest group.

Non- Connected PACs

Groups with an ideological mission or a single issue, members of Congress and other political leaders may establish “non-connected PACs.” These groups may accept funding from any individual, connected PAC or organization.

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PACs, Super PACs and the influence of election spending