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Last night was a deadline for presidential candidates to disclose their finances. The so-called superPACs had to disclose their finances too.
MONTAGNE: The public will learn something about who's giving money and how it's being spent. But from here until Election Day, some of the most interesting spending may be taking place out of sight.
INSKEEP: Outside groups are spending millions of dollars in ways that keep the donors anonymous.
Two recent court rulings could force those groups to file public disclosures. But there may be a way around that, as NPR's Peter Overby reports.
PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: The Republican primaries were all about superPACs and their million-dollar donors. These big-spending groups are not superPACs. Unlike superPACs, they don't disclose their donors. They operate mostly as tax-exempt advocacy organizations under section 501(c)(4) of the tax code. It's a status that lets them hide the sources of their money.
Allison Hayward is vice president of policy at the Center for Competitive Politics. She says there may be good reasons that donors would give to a superPAC in the primaries but think twice about doing that in the general election.
ALLISON HAYWARD: People wanted to be known for what they were doing in - potentially - in the Republican battle. Maybe now they're less excited that Obama knows what they're doing for Romney, or something like that.
OVERBY: Tax law says that non-profit groups cannot have partisan politics as their major purpose. Yet so far these groups have outspent others in the general election, including President Obama's re-election campaign and both national party committees.
Bowdoin College professor Michael Franz is a co-director of the Wesleyan Media Project, which last month compiled a list of the top-spending groups in the TV political wars.
MICHAEL FRANZ: What we basically did was say, here are the groups that are airing the ads, and here's where they're airing them. And we listed the name, the number of ads and the sort of total dollars spent.
OVERBY: The Wesleyan list shows 10 groups over the million-dollar mark for the general election. Seven of the 10 are non-profits that don't disclose their donors. Collectively they spent $30 million.
Again, Michael Franz.
FRANZ: The interests, you know, don't want to be at the center of the debate. They want to make the campaigns the center of the debate, but they still want to influence what voters are thinking. And so the (c)(4) vehicle is an easy way to do that, without also having the disclosure sort of drive the narrative.
OVERBY: The top spender was Crossroads GPS, co-founded by Republican consultant Karl Rove. Since the Wesleyan analysis was done, Crossroads GPS has announced a $25 million campaign targeting President Obama's record.
Proponents of disclosure won two victories recently. A federal district court told the Federal Election Commission to resume requiring disclosure of so-called electioneering communications, and an appellate panel has left the ruling in place while opponents file their appeal.
Electioneering communications are the legal name for TV ads like the ones Crossroads GPS is already airing when they're run close to Election Day.
But Rick Hasen, an election law professor at the University of California, Irvine, says he's not expecting any sudden outpouring of donor information.
RICK HASEN: It's been a cat-and-mouse game that's gone on for a very long time.
OVERBY: In fact, as soon as the district judge issued the order to the FEC, non-profit groups started changing their advertising. One way to sidestep the court ruling is to switch from electioneering communications to more partisan messages that are not covered by the court order.
Hasen points out that then the most explicit kind of partisan ads would be financed with anonymous money, which is basically the thing that campaign finance disclosure is supposed to prevent.
HASEN: It's quite an ironic outcome, because the whole point of the electioneering communications rules was to avoid loopholes.
OVERBY: Still, that strategy could bring big risks. The IRS could question why a non-profit is spending so much money explicitly attacking candidates when it's supposed to be mainly advocating on issues. But that would likely be a fight for after the election.
Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.
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