Special interest money is pouring into the race between Democrat Scott Peters and GOP challenger Carl DeMaio in California’s 52nd congressional district.

So far, the candidates have raised nearly $4.7 million, excluding loans and self-financing. And outside spending groups that aren’t connected to either campaign have been making six-figure ad buys for months now.

With the election heating up, inewsource compiled what we hope will be a handy guide to the three major sources of special interest money in the race.


A PAC — political action committee, for those who like to spell things out — is a committee formed to raise and spend money for and against political candidates.

Most PACs fall into one of two categories.

In the first category are PACs that are sponsored by an organization, often a business, union, trade or professional association. These PACs can only raise money from individuals connected to that organization. A PAC sponsored by a business, for example, will raise money from that business’ employees. A PAC sponsored by a union will raise money from that union’s members. These PACs tend to be less ideological and more pragmatic in their contributions. That’s why they often tend to back incumbents regardless of party affiliation.

The second category of PACs are those that are not connected to an organization.These PACs are often formed by political operatives of one stripe or another and have the aim of supporting groups of candidates based on their party affiliation or ideology. An example is a leadership PAC — a PAC sponsored by a politician who’s looking to build clout with his colleagues by raising funds and transferring them to others’ campaigns.

PACs can donate up to $10,000 to a candidate per election cycle. They also can donate up to $5,000 to another PAC per year. PACs may accept up to $5,000 per year from individuals and other entities and must disclose the names of anyone who gives at least $200.

Super PACs

Super PACs are relative newcomers on the political scene, the result of two 2010 court rulings.

Unlike regular PACs, super PACs cannot contribute directly to candidates. They can, however, raise and spend unlimited amounts on their behalf. These are called “independent expenditures” and are things like TV commercials, mail pieces and internet advertising that support or oppose candidates for office.

Super PACs are prohibited from coordinating these independent expenditures with any candidates or political parties. In other words, they can’t consult with the candidate about the best way to use super PAC money.

Like regular PACs, super PACs must disclose their donors. Examples include the conservative American Crossroads and the liberal House Majority PAC.

Politically-active nonprofits

Politically-active nonprofits have become a major force in politics these last few election cycles.

They are like super PACs in a few ways: they can raise and spend unlimited sums of money; they can’t donate directly to candidates; they can only make independent expenditures. But unlike super PACs (and regular PACs), they don’t have to disclose their donors. That’s why they’re called “dark money” groups.

So, why don’t they have to disclose donors? Because they’re nonprofits and aren’t required by law to disclose their donors.

So why don’t all super PACs just convert to nonprofit status and start shielding their donors? Unlike super PACs, which are allowed to spend all their money on politics, these nonprofits are not supposed to have politics as their primary purpose. Most election law attorneys have taken this to mean that these groups can’t spend more than 50 percent of their funds on politics, making them a less efficient way for donors’ to spend their money. Examples include the conservative Crossroads GPS (spun off from American Crossroads) and the liberal Patriot Majority USA.

Joe Yerardi is a freelance data journalist for inewsource, where he worked between 2013 and 2016 as an investigative reporter and data specialist. To contact him with questions, tips or corrections, email

3 replies on “Pick a PAC, any PAC”

  1. Hi Joe,
    This is great information I never had before. Let me see if I have it straight. There are two types of political action committee (PAC), those which are connected with an organization and those which are not connected with an organization. Both types of PAC must disclose their donors and can directly contribute to a candidate’s campaign up to certain monetary limits. Then there are the “super” political action committees, which must also disclose their donors, but which cannot directly contribute to a candidate’s campaign. These superPACs can, however, spend unlimited amounts of money in political activities to indirectly assist a candidate, as long as those activities are not “directly coordinated” with the particular candidate’s campaign.


    Bill Miller

  2. Hi, Bill. Thanks for commenting. I’m glad you found the post interesting. Your interpretation of the PACs and Super PACs is spot on.


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