RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Tomorrow's primary in South Carolina happens to fall on the second anniversary of the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision. That's the case that allows corporations to explicitly support or attack specific candidates. NPR's Peter Overby says the day will bring both attack ads and protests.
PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: The Republican presidential race has covered just three states so far, and super PACs linked to candidates Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum and Ron Paul have spent a total of $20 million. They're feeding voters a heavy diet of negativity.
(SOUNDBITE OF ADS)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Rick Santorum, Washington insider, big spender.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Mitt Romney, not a conservative, not...
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Newt Gingrich's attacks are called foolish, out of bounds and disgusting.
OVERBY: Ads one and three there came from the super PAC supporting Romney, the middle one from the super PAC supporting Gingrich. Super PACs are a product of Citizens United and some other legal decisions. They collect unlimited contributions, and when they're aligned with specific candidates, they operate as shadow campaigns. A candidate can raise money for a super PAC but he cannot tell it what to do. It doesn't seem to matter because almost always the super PAC is run by people who've spent years working for the candidate. All of the candidates get tongue-tied trying to explain that weird relationship. Here's Romney during the debate Monday night trying to distance himself from what he called my super PAC.
MITT ROMNEY: I haven't spoken with any of the people that are involved with my super PAC in months.
OVERBY: This wouldn't be such a big deal if the super PACs were only a sideshow. But they seem to be outspending the candidates, who are trundling along raising money in chunks of $2,500 or less. As to where the super PACs get those big contributions, we don't know. They haven't disclosed their donors since last July. Lawyer Ken Gross has been in campaign finance law since the 1970s. His clients have included Republicans and Democrats, corporations and trade associations. He says he didn't start out two years ago thinking Citizens United was that big a deal.
KEN GROSS: I have become a convert.
OVERBY: And he says super PACs are what did it. He says they're blowing the lid off the financing of elections.
GROSS: These super PACs are metastasizing. I think it's very disturbing that the groups are bigger than the candidates and almost bigger than the party committees themselves.
OVERBY: The State Supreme Court in Montana recently rejected Citizens United, upholding a state law that bans corporate money in partisan politics. But as super PACs have grown over the past two years, there's been relatively little pushback against the decision from the organized groups that criticize unfettered political money. Those groups hope to change that today.
MARGE BAKER: There are hundreds of events going on at locations around the country.
OVERBY: Marge Baker is with People for the American Way, one of the organizing groups.
BAKER: It's just that we're in a movement moment that, you know, you can't look at Iowa, you can't look at South Carolina and not understand how much influence Citizens United has had on our elections and on our democracy.
OVERBY: Today, the main event will be demonstrations outside federal courthouses. More than 100 are planned.
DAVID COBB: Why the courts? Because frankly, folks, that the scene of the crime.
OVERBY: That's David Cobb in a video from the group Move to Amend. A smaller wave of demonstrations is planned tomorrow - Occupy the Corporation actions at various corporate headquarters and rallies at several state capitals. The coalitions include good government groups and liberals; also environmentalists, including in his own video the leader of the effort to blow up the Keystone XL pipeline.
(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)
BILL MCKIBBEN: Hello. I'm Bill McKibben. I'm an environmentalist and I wanted to tell you why environmentalists are getting onboard in a big way with this fight against Citizens United.
OVERBY: A fight that, if successful, would amend the Constitution. The amendment would undo Citizens United along with an older Supreme Court decision that prevents regulation of political spending. Robert Rice is chairman of Common Cause, one of the groups organizing the campaign.
ROBERT RICE: We're under no illusion here - the fight is going to take a very long time to win but voters are fed up. They need a way to make their voices heard and we need to start right now.
OVERBY: The deregulatory side of the debate is keeping a lower profile today. At the Institute for Justice, attorney Steve Simpson says the demonstrations are fine. He describes them this way...
STEVE SIMPSON: People banding together in groups and exercising their right to free speech to protest a court decision that held that people should be able to band together in groups and exercise their right to free speech. That's a little bit ironic.
OVERBY: That's the heart of Citizens United right there - that corporate-financed partisan ads are quite the same as activists pushing for a Constitutional amendment. And given that an amendment requires a two-thirds vote in both houses of Congress, plus approval from 38 states, Citizens United could be around for many more anniversaries. Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.