Last year, Ronnie Manns was feeling down on his luck. His two Rockford, Illinois-based transportation and financial services enterprises—Manns Logistics, Manufacturing & Distribution and R. Manns & Associates—had gone bottom up during the recession, and the political rancor on television had put him in a sour mood. But from his frustration was born an idea: He would start his own super PAC.
“To be completely honest, to tell you exactly what I was thinking would be a lie, because I honestly can’t remember,” Manns told me over the phone. But the result was a group called “American Citizens of Modest Means,” which, according to Manns, would tell “the whole story” about Americans who were struggling, while promoting his own distinctive political platform. “I have inventions that will create thousands of jobs right here in America,” he explained via e-mail. “I have an innovation that could reduce our housing crisis. ... I have multiple inventions one of which has anti-cancer properties and could decrease mortality.”
Manns’s policy prescriptions may be unorthodox, but, in the world of super PACs, he isn’t so unusual. Perhaps believing the potential to spend unlimited amounts of money on federal elections somehow increases the likelihood that one will receive unlimited amounts of money, numerous aspiring politicos with all kinds of agendas have formed super PACs over the past two years. At least 325 such groups have materialized, and together they’ve raised more than $98 million in the 2012 campaign cycle. Most of the expenditures have been made by a few big groups that have declared allegiance to one GOP candidate or another—such as the pro-Romney Restore Our Future or the pro-Gingrich Winning Our Future. But plenty of other super PACs, like Ronnie Manns’s, have interests that are far more niche.
TAKE THE “Damian C. Palmer and Jack C. Pilgrim for a Better America Super PAC.” “Before mailing in the application, I made sure to call the FEC [Federal Elections Commission] so that I wasn’t doing anything illegal,” Palmer, the organization’s assistant treasurer, told me. One of his reasons for concern, he explained, was the fact that he is a 17-year-old “future voter” at Glendale High School in Springfield, Missouri.
Jack Pilgrim, the other half of the PAC, is Palmer’s friend. “We sit next to each other in class, and we talked about it, and we kind of felt the same way about doing it. And he said, ‘Well, if you’re doing it, I want my name on it, too.’” At first, Palmer recalls, most of his friends and teachers thought “it was crazy, that it’s kind of stupid, and that it’ll never work, but, when I figured out that it went through, my government teacher was surprised.” As for his future plans, Palmer alternates between the grandiose and the timid. “It might sound crazy, but I created Damian C. Palmer and Jack C. Pilgrim for a Better America Super PAC to be almost a voice for the younger generation, speaking against what is wrong with campaign elections today,” he wrote in an e-mail. But later, he told me, “I kind of plan on using it, but I’m almost a little scared that someone will donate money to it, and I might not file it correctly, and then I’ll go to jail for fraud or something.”
Other super PACs have more specific ambitions. “American Phoenix SuperPac,” for instance, advocates for deep-sea burial, while “Playoff PAC” seeks to do away with college football’s Bowl Championship Series. Then there is a super PAC called, simply, “The Internet,” which seeks to represent the interests of the entire World Wide Web. “There’s a lot of energy in the Internet, but it’s not directed properly,” Benjamin Thomas, the group’s political director, told me. “I’m a community organizer, but nobody has community-organized the Internet, and it’s about time that happened.” However, this does not mean that the PAC will be advocating on behalf of lolcats, planking, or Lana Del Rey. “We have bot crawlers that are going out and figuring out what’s most important,” he says, “and [they’re] structured to filter out Justin Bieber and other non-political issues.” He added, “Part of it is, we look forward to producing an ad that says, ‘paid for by the internet,’ because that’ll be true.”
Not all of the new groups were formed with idealistic aims. One committee that has drawn attention from campaign finance wonks is “a SuperPac,” whose website brags that it “threads a needle through IRS and FEC regulation, helping a donor to veil their identity.” Its treasurer, Matthew Balazik, explained to me via e-mail that the group “was founded so that conservatives who feel intimidated can have a voice by anonymously supporting our campaigns.” But what seems like free speech to Balazik appears potentially problematic to Paul Ryan, associate counsel at the Campaign Legal Center. “Our campaign finance laws are clear in their design to compel super PACs to disclose any contributor who exceeds the $200 threshold,” Ryan told me. Any group advertising otherwise may be violating the law. When pressed on whether his approach was legal, Balazik told me: “We’d consider the answer you’re looking for to be somewhat of a trade secret. That’s why we have the lawyers.”
And then there are the enigmas that couldn’t be cracked, like the approximately 60 committees—which go by names like “Fannie Mae Affiliated Mortgage Lenders Super PAC,” “United States Celebrities Super PAC,” “Exxon Mobil Corporation Shareholders Super PAC,” and “United States Former Presidents Super PAC”—that are all registered to the same 30-year-old Florida native, Josue Larose. To date, Larose, a purported billionaire and perennial candidate for statewide office, hasn’t actually raised or spent any money on federal campaigns, prompting questions about whether he is engaged in the campaign finance version of cyber-squatting. In previous years, he has registered more than 340 PACs (such as “Billionaire Josue Larose’s Dating Women Committee”) and 40 political parties in Florida, inspiring a new state law prohibiting individuals from chairing more than one political party at the same time.
To be sure, not all the characters I encountered in super PAC-land appeared nefarious or wacky. For instance, Bob Stannard, a state lobbyist for liberal causes in Vermont, is a vocal opponent of Citizens United, the Supreme Court decision that prompted the proliferation of super PACs. Indeed, the entire idea of a super PAC strikes him as “horrible.” But, as long as super PACs exist, Stannard says, even their opponents should be using them. His group, “Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Today,” has cut its first ad—a tongue-in-cheek attack on Stephen Colbert and his super PAC, “Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow”—and it aired in South Carolina during the state’s GOP primary in January. “We’re going to have some fun, believe me, but this effort is absolutely serious in representing the interests of the ninety-nine percent,” he says. “Don’t mistake our humor for this being a humorous affair.”
Jesse Zwick is a special correspondent for The New Republic. This article appeared in the March 15, 2012 issue of the magazine.