TAMPA, Fla. - People following the money trail in U.S. politics say the fundraising "arms race" has gone nuclear. Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics
, is in Tampa, Fla., observing the Republican National Convention. She expects candidates and their allies to spend a minimum of $5.8 billion on federal campaigns this year, an all-time high. More of the money will be of a particularly sneaky kind, she warns.
"Much more of the money than in previous cycles will be made up of unlimited, undisclosed donations."
She says voters need to be cautious about secretive groups with innocent-sounding names that often fund dishonest political ads.
"Despite the patriotic name, it may in fact be one donor. Maybe a member of Congress has jurisdiction over their company or industry through their congressional committee assignments - who knows? We have to all be vigilant in this cycle, because there's a lot of hidden messages."
This year she says many huge super-PACs are masquerading as charities to dodge disclosure. She says the IRS has been investigating.
"But they risk pushback from Congress that doesn't like what they view as meddling in politics. Their hand has been slapped and they're cautiously proceeding."
Some fundraisers have defended the system, saying campaign donations are an extension of free speech. But Krumholz says what's really going on is that politicians and donors are building relationships they can use to their advantage. She says everyone in the political elite knows who is helping whom - but citizens are left in the dark.