Critics warned that PACs would dominate political spending this year and that , despite laws to the contrary, they weren't going to be all that "independent" from the candidates they've decided to help. Now, thanks to a particularly nasty ad from Democratic group Priorities USA, the coordination between Super PACs and candidates has become a topic of discussion beyond the typical beltway insiders.
When Priorities USA, a Democratic Super PAC, unveiled its "Joe Soptic" ad recently, what first caught viewers off guard was the outrageous claim that somehow Mitt Romney and Bain Capital were responsible for the death of Mr. Soptic's wife. In the ad, Mr. Soptic says Bain's move to shut the steel plant at which he worked left his wife uninsured and led to her cancer death.
Not only did it turn out that Mr. Soptic's wife died five years after his firing, but Republicans noticed something else about the ad. Mr. Soptic had previously appeared in an ad for Obama for America, wearing the same shirt, no less. This led to charges that Obama for America and Priorities USA were coordinating.
The Federal Elections Commission bars Super PACs from working with a candidate or campaign, but described "coordination" so narrowly, only direct planning is outlawed, leaving plenty of room for indirect cooperation.
And that 's allowing former staffers, friends and family to redefine the notion of independence.
Republican charges of coordination may have political impact, but because of the latitude given to Super PACs by the FEC, they are groundless, said Bill Allison of the Sunlight Foundation.
The two teams "don't have to coordinate to cooperate," Allison said.
"People running PACs are political pros, they can tell what the campaign is doing without direct contacts. They can piggyback on a campaign's message," Mr. Allison said.
Of course, that sort of insight is easier to achieve when the person running a super PAC once worked on a candidate's campaign.
Priorities USA was founded by people close to Obama, including former White House Press Secretary Bill Burton.
Current Press Secretary Jay Carney said the White House has had nothing to do with the controversial Soptic ad. But the White House has acknowledged its support of Priorities USA, allowing officials to attend group events and donate money. Obama's campaign manager Jim Messina even attended a PAC fundraiser.
And the Republicans aren't exactly wide-eyed innocents either. Restore our Future, a PAC supporting Romney, recycled an ad the former Massachusetts governor ran in 2007 during his first bid for the White House.
Carl Forti, a founder of the Restore Our Future super PAC, was Romney's political director in 2008. Co-founder Larry McCarthy was a member of Romney's media team, and Charles Spies, the treasurer, was Romney's chief financial officer and top attorney in 2008. Mr. Forti is also on the board of American Crossroads, another conservative super PAC supporting Romney.
Campaigns and their super PAC supporters often use the same ad buyer, which allows them to legally work in tandem, Mr. Allison said. "They can then tell if a campaign is spending money in a key state, say Ohio, and run ads there if it's not."
Mr. Allison also said there's a growing trend of donor-sharing. A big contributor to a campaign is often also giving to the supporting super PAC.
This has been called the year of the super PAC, a result of two federal court decisions.
One is the Supreme Court's well-known Citizens United ruling, which allows corporations and unions to spend unlimited amounts of "soft money" running independent ads. The other is a D.C. District Court's Speechnow.org decision that allows rich people, corporations and unions to give to third-party organizations that run independent campaigns.
According to the Center for Responsive Politics, 727 super PACs reported raising $319 million and spending $185 million as of Aug. 12. The top PACs were Restore our Future, which has spent $62 million and Priorities USA, which has spent $19 million.
Then there are the "mommy and daddy" PACs. Candidates' rich mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters increasingly are pouring cash into PACs that support their loved ones' campaigns.
Laura Ruderman, a Democrat running for Congress in Washington state, said she did not know her mother was behind a super PAC running attack ads on a primary rival.
She wrote the PAC telling it to stop.
"I love my mother very much, but I cannot condone the path this independent expenditure has taken," Ms. Ruderman's letter said.
Patrick Murphy, a Democrat running for Congress in Florida, said he was "pleasantly surprised" when he learned from FEC filings that his father, Tom Murphy, Jr., was the main donor to a Super PAC called American Sunrise that supports his campaign.
George Holding, a Republican who defeated longtime Rep. Paul Coble of North Carolina in a primary, was aided by a Super PAC funded almost entirely by his family.
Another example of super PAC family ties can be found in the campaign of Dan Roberti, a Democrat running for Congress in Connecticut, who has been helped by a fund supported by his lobbyist father, Vincent Roberti, and his dad's friends and associates.