Political action committees (PACs) are organizations that raise and spend money to support candidates and influence elections. PACs can represent industry groups, labor unions, or individual companies. PACs spend money to run advertisements on specific issues or for candidates, finance get-out-the-vote drives, do research on election issues, and more.

In the 1970s, the Federal Election Committee (FEC) was created to regulate campaign finance and eliminate financial abuses in political campaigns. The FEC limits the size of political donations and requires reporting of campaign donations and spending. Several Supreme Court cases in the decades following its establishment limited the FEC’s regulations, often citing political spending as a form of free speech. As a result, spending by PACs has increased in the past several elections.

What are traditional, super, or hybrid PACs?

There are three different kinds of PACs under FEC rules and regulations: traditional, super, or hybrid. The rules for how much money a committee can receive in donations or how these committees operate are different depending on the type.

Traditional PACs face both spending and donation limits. They can spend up to $5,000 on a candidate every election, up to $5,000 every year in contributions to other PACs, and up to $15,000 on national party committees. Individuals, other PACs, and corporations can donate up to $5,000 per year to a traditional PAC.

Super PACs arose after the 2010 Citizens United v. FEC court decision, which struck down limits on independent spending. Also known as independent expenditure-only political committees, super PACs cannot directly contribute money to candidates, but can freely spend on political advertisements and independent election-influencing activities. They also do not face donation limits, meaning individuals or corporations can give an unlimited amount of money to super PACs. The lack of donation limits on super PACs quickly made them important players in US elections.

Hybrid PACs maintain two separate accounts: one account functions like a traditional PAC with contribution limits, and the other account functions like a super PAC, which only makes independent expenditures. Hybrid PACs were established after the 2012 Carey v. FEC case, which resulted in many traditional and super PACs reclassifying as hybrid PACs. Hybrid PACs are also known as Carey committees, due to the Supreme Court case that helped create them.

All PACs are required to disclose the total amount of money they receive, as well as the names, addresses, employers, and occupations of any person who donates more than $200 to them in one year.

How does “dark money” work?

Dark money is a common term used to describe political contributions that evade federal disclosure requirements.

Typically, dark money refers to contributions to social nonprofits or 501(c)4 organizations, which are considered social welfare organizations, and not political organizations. These organizations are allowed to contribute money to PACs, but they do not face the same disclosure requirements as PACs. This means individuals or groups can contribute money anonymously to 501(c)4 organizations, such as Planned Parenthood or the National Rifle Association, which are then allowed to pass that money onto PACs.

How much money is spent by PACs?

As of mid-September this year, PACs have spent a total of $5.89 billion in the current 2022 election cycle. About 50% of that spending came from hybrid PACs, 32% from traditional PACs, and 18% from super PACs. The vast majority of hybrid PAC spending is from their independent expenditure accounts that are not subject to spending limits.

Despite there being two months until the election, 2022 PAC spending has already surpassed total PAC spending in previous midterm elections.

With two months left until the election, 2022 PAC spending has surpassed previous midterm election spending.

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The record for PAC spending in a year was 2020 with PACs collectively spending over $14 billion. Total PAC disbursements in 2016 were less than half that amount, and PACs collectively spent less than $2 billion in the 2008 election.

PAC spending has grown at an increasing rate over the past two decades.

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So far in the 2022 election cycle, eight PACs have spent more than $50 million. In the 2018 cycle, 11 PACs spent more than $50 million.

10 highest political action committee spenders in 2022 election cycle
PAC name Disbursements as of 9/23/22
ACTBLUE $1.54 billion
WINRED $806 million
SAVE AMERICA JOINT FUNDRAISING
COMMITTEE
$99.5 million
SENATE MAJORITY PAC $99.4 million
TRUMP MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN
COMMITTEE
$82.3 million
TAKE BACK THE HOUSE 2022 $69.0 million
CLUB FOR GROWTH ACTION $58.9 million
EMILY'S LIST $57.0 million

Who is funding PACs?

Individuals, corporations, and other political groups such as candidate committees contribute money to PACs. With the loosening of campaign finance laws in the past several decades, individual contributions to elections increased. Because there are still two months left in the 2022 election cycle, much of the contributions so far have been focused on primary elections. Despite this, nine individuals have contributed at least $20 million in political donations this cycle.[1]

Individuals who have contributed at least $20 million this election cycle, as of September 2022
Donor Name Donations in 2022 election cycle
SOROS, GEORGE $129 million
GRIFFIN, KENNETH C. $50.5 million
UIHLEIN, RICHARD $48.5 million
BANKMAN-FRIED, SAMUEL $39.7 million
YASS, JEFF $31.7 million
THIEL, PETER $30.1 million
EYCHANER, FRED $22.4 million
SCHWARZMAN, STEPHEN $21.4 million
ELLISON, LAWRENCE $21 million

Individuals or corporations that contribute large sums of money in elections donate to super PACs or hybrid PACs instead of individual candidates or candidate committees to avoid being subject to contribution limits.

As of Aug. 31, 2022, PACs have raised $6.15 billion for the current election cycle. By comparison, individual candidates have raised $2.4 billion, 39% of what PACs have raised.

So far in the 2022 election cycle, there have been 242 individual donations of $1 million or more to PACs. For comparison, the 2018 midterm election cycle had 216 individual donations of $1 million or more to PACs. The 2020 presidential election cycle had 478 such donations.

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[1]

Based on donations attributed to individuals by the FEC, not including spouses.