WASHINGTON – Thanks to two recent US Supreme Court rulings that hatched a new kind of political action committee known as a “super PAC,” the 2012 presidential campaign is shaping up to be the “year of the big donor.”

A super PAC can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money from individuals, corporations, and unions for the sole purpose of supporting or opposing political candidates.

By far the largest donation to a super PAC has come from casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and his Israeli-born wife, Miriam. The Adelsons have made no bones about why they gave $10 million to a group supporting Republican hopeful Newt Gingrich: his pro-Israel bona fides.

“Sheldon Adelson’s passion in life is (the security) of Israel,” Gingrich said at a campaign event in Florida last month. The former House speaker added that Adelson’s support was owed in measure to his concern about Iran posing the threat of a “second Holocaust” to Israel.

Adelson is a major funder of pro-Israel groups such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and owns a pro-Netanyahu newspaper in Israel, Israel Hayom, which takes a hard line on compromise with the Palestinians. His hawkish views on Israel, and his willingness to speak publicly about them, have generated controversy.

NBC news recently aired comments Adelson made to a group in July 2010, in which he said he wished he had served in the Israeli army rather than the US military and that he hoped his son would return to Israel and “be a sniper for the IDF.”

To compete with his Republican rivals, President Obama is seeking his own billionaire. The Wall Street Journal reported that the Obama campaign has its sights set on Israeli-American media mogul Haim Saban. In 2008, Saban backed Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign and has reportedly been uneasy about Obama’s policy toward Israel. However, Saban and his wife cut two $5,000 checks to the Obama campaign in December, the maximum amount allowed to be given directly to a candidate.

Critics of super PACs claim the new groups corrupt the democratic process.

“It’s simply wrong for our democracy that an individual or his spouse can give $10 million to a particular candidate and thereby potentially buy corrupting influence at the expense of the electorate,” said Fred Wertheimer, president of the campaign watchdog group Democracy21.

Former Democratic presidential candidate and party chairman Howard Dean says, “This really is the selling of America.”

‘In truth, our democracy was sold to the highest bidder long ago, but in the 2012 election, the explosion of super PACs has shifted the public’s focus to the staggering inequality in our political system’ — Howard Dean

“In truth, our democracy was sold to the highest bidder long ago, but in the 2012 election, the explosion of super PACs has shifted the public’s focus to the staggering inequality in our political system, just as the Occupy movement shined a light on the gross inequity of the economy. The two, of course, go hand in hand,” said Dean.

Stephen Colbert, one of America’s best-known political satirists, recently noted that half of the money raised by super PACs last year came from just 22 people. “That’s 7 one-millionths of 1 percent,” Colbert said while spraying a fire extinguisher on his flaming calculator.

In fact, one of the most vocal opponents of super PACs in the past was Obama, who railed against the Supreme Court cases that gave rise to them. In his 2008 State of the Union address, the president called the rulings a “threat to our democracy” and said, “I don’t think American elections should be bankrolled by America’s most powerful interests.”

But his campaign changed course when the wealth advantage enjoyed by pro-Republican super PACs became evident. Of the 16 billionaires on the Forbes 400 who have contributed to super PACs, only two, Steven Spielberg and George Soros, gave to Democrats.

“We’re not going to fight this fight with one hand tied behind our back,” said Jim Messina, Obama’s campaign manager. “With so much at stake, we can’t allow for two sets of rules. Democrats can’t be unilaterally disarmed.”

Those who worry that the conflation of the Israel issue with Jewish mega-donors will give rise to classic anti-Semitic tropes about “Jewish power” can take comfort from the latest billionaire-candidate pairing: Rick Santorum and Foster Friess.

Of the 16 billionaires on the Forbes 400 who have contributed to super PACs, only two, Steven Spielberg and George Soros, gave to Democrats

The former Pennsylvania senator’s candidacy, which appeared on the verge of extinction not along ago, has been dramatically rejuvenated thanks in no small part to Friess, a conservative hedge-fund billionaire and Christian evangelical from Wyoming. The cowboy-hatted venture capitalist has poured money into Santorum’s super PAC – called Red, White, & Blue – whose spending on campaign ads helped Santorum score upset victories over his well-funded rival Mitt Romney in Colorado, Minnesota, and Missouri’s Republican primaries on February 7.

Whatever headaches Adelson may have caused his preferred candidate over the Israel issue, Friess has certainly complicated things for his candidate over the issue of contraception.

Last week, Friess “joked” on MSNBC that women should hold an aspirin between their knees to use as contraception. Santorum has distanced himself from what he called a “bad and stupid joke” and Friess has since apologized.

Aspiring candidates beware: Billionaires don’t come for free.