Your Brief Guide to the 2012 Super PACs

With No Contribution Caps, These Groups Are Likely to Push Political Outlays Into Stratosphere

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American Crossroads is a branchild of Karl Rove.
American Crossroads is a branchild of Karl Rove.

Next year looks as if it will be a bonanza of political spending, fueled in part by the new kids on the block: Super PACs.

Born from last year's Supreme Court decision that corporations could spend money directly on elections, the Super PACs, along with other independent groups registered under various sections of the tax code, are radically changing the landscape of paid political advertising.

Republican-leaning groups are still sporting big fundraising advantages compared with their Democratic counterparts. But unlike last year, Democrats are at least in the game. And unlike political candidates themselves, the Super PACs are not entitled to the "lowest unit rate" before elections -- meaning more money for media buyers, networks and local cable operators.

Here are some of the groups that could be the biggest spenders.

American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS
These two Republican groups, the former a 527 and the latter a 501(c)(4) nonprofit, are the brainchild of Karl Rove. They've become a shadow Republican Party and are almost certain to be the biggest spenders in the class of new political groups. They laid out millions of dollars during last year's midterm elections and have set their 2012 target at $240 million.

Together, the Crossroads groups spent more than $37 million in 2010, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. American Crossroads had more than $5 million in the bank in early October, according to FEC data, while Crossroads GPS, which does not have to disclose its donors, has yet to report any fundraising totals to the IRS. The groups use a variety of media buyers, most often Crossroads Media based in Alexandria, Va.

Priorities USA Action
Run by President Obama aide Bill Burton, this is supposed to be the Democratic answer to the Crossroads groups. Priorities hasn't yet come anywhere close to matching the Crossroads groups in corporate cash hauls yet. But with Mr. Obama giving his tacit blessing to the kinds of outside political groups whose influence he's previously decried, look for it to be laser-focused as the president's chief paid media defender, outside the campaign itself.

Still in its infancy, Priorities just $1.8 million in the bank at the end of June, according to FEC data. It hasn't yet spent on TV but it utilized New York-based GSG Communications for digital media buys.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce
The right-leaning business lobby shelled out millions in the final weeks before the midterm elections last year and is expected to do even more this year with the White House in play. Since it's not a political committee, the Chamber can't explicitly support or oppose the election of candidates in its ads. But that doesn't mean it can't drop boat loads of cash on so-called issue ads which take candidates to task for policy positions.

The group spent close to $33 million hammering Democratic candidates in 2010, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. It hasn't disclosed any recent fundraising information.

House Majority PAC
Charged with taking back the House for Democrats, this Super PAC is expected to engage in individual races across the country, where substantial local advertising buys can have a strong impact. It's full of veterans of Democratic campaigns who know where and how to spend money, and if its fundraising picks up from a relatively slow start, it will be a major player.

The House Majority PAC raised $2.1 million this year as of Oct. 3 and had spent less than a million of it, according to FEC data. Murphy Vogel Askew Reilly does much of its creative, while D.C.-based Waterfront Strategies handles media.

American Action Network
This conservative 501(c)(4) is also expected to ramp up its efforts to on behalf of Republicans next year. Like the Chamber, it can't directly support or oppose anyone's election. But it's heavy on corporate cash and quick to pump money into local broadcasting coffers for down-ballot races.

The nonprofit spent about $26 million last year, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. It hasn't reported any recent fundraising data.

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