Not Always Clear Who's Funding Politics-Related Ads

August 3, 2012 | | NPR |

Prominent Jewish Republicans flew to Israel last weekend to join presidential candidate Mitt Romney on his overseas trip. Among them were casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and his wife, Miriam.

The Adelsons were in the audience Sunday when Romney gave a policy speech in Jerusaleum. And at a fundraising breakfast Monday, Sheldon Adelson sat by Romney's side.

But here's the odd thing: Adelson hadn't actually given a penny to Romney's campaign as of June 30, the last Federal Election Commission reporting deadline. The legal maximum he could donate to the campaign itself would be $5,000 — and that doesn't get you a seat next to the candidate.

Instead, Adelson's support for Romney far surpasses anything he would be legally allowed to give to the campaign itself:

- Adelson has given $10 million to the pro-Romney superPAC Restore Our Future, which under law is supposed to be independent of the campaign.

- He gave to the Republican Jewish Coalition, a tax-exempt social welfare organization, for a $6.5 million campaign entitled "My Buyer's Remorse" aimed at disaffected Jewish Democrats who voted for Barack Obama in 2008.

- And Adelson has reportedly made pledges of $10 million each to two more social welfare groups — Crossroads GPS, co-founded by strategist Karl Rove, and Americans For Prosperity, backed by billionaires Charles and David Koch.

Under tax law, social welfare organizations don't have to disclose their donors.

"I think that that's what gets [Adelson] that kind of access," says Bill Allison of the pro-disclosure watchdog Sunlight Foundation. "You know, he's somebody who can write million-dollar checks, or $5 million checks, at the drop of a hat. And you know, for a politician that's a really handy thing to have, even if the money is going to, you know, one of these surrogate groups."

But social welfare organizations are definitely playing a big role in shaping the debate around presidential politics. The campaigns and other groups — social welfare organizations included — are now spending some $20 million a week on TV ads related to the Obama-Romney race.

At the liberal advocacy group, Demos, Adam Lioz just co-wrote a report looking at the social welfare organizations and what he calls their "dark money."