BOSTON (AP) -- Operating with few rules and limited oversight, outside groups spent a record $1 billion to influence last year's election.
Politicians of all persuasions griped about the meddling. But few are working to change laws that ushered in an unprecedented flood of money made possible by a 2010 Supreme Court ruling that erased years of campaign finance law.
Instead, political leaders and donors from both parties are preparing for the flow of outside money to intensify. New groups have formed and others are shaping plans to come back bigger and smarter ahead of the 2014 congressional elections and the 2016 presidential race.
What laws do remain could become even looser as the Supreme Court considers another high-profile decision.
"The unregulated system that we seem to be headed in will make Watergate look like a bad soap opera," said Robert Zimmerman, a member of the Democratic National Committee's national finance team who helped raise as much as $500,000 for President Barack Obama's re-election effort.
"Everybody is focusing on raising more," Zimmerman said.
Even as some fundraisers report fatigue following a vicious and expensive presidential campaign last year, both sides are aggressively courting donors to help further transform the political landscape.
Campaigns and political parties bound by traditional fundraising limits are moving to outsource research, advertising, data collection and issue advocacy to groups that can accept unlimited donations while often offering donors anonymity.
The president, too, is intensifying his fundraising focus to help his party and a new nonprofit organization led by his former campaign manager.
Having promised to headline at least 20 fundraisers in his final presidential term for Democrat's campaign committees, Obama last week raised millions of dollars in four events. One was a $32,400-per person brunch in Atherton, Calif.
"I'm going to need some help," Obama told donors.
Donors who gave millions last fall, largely on the Republican side, are already lining up to do more.
"I'm going to do everything I possibly can to help our country and those people who believe in our country," said Republican donor Foster Friess, who gave more than $2 million to a new kind of political action committee, known as a super PAC, that fueled the 2012 presidential campaign of former Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa.
Super PACs can raise and spend unlimited funds to help candidates, but cannot coordinate expenditures or strategy with a campaign.
Like other donors, Friess says he's eager to use his "affluence" to shape policy fights in addition to helping candidates.
The emergence of super PACs and other outside groups, emboldened partly by the Citizens United decision by the Supreme Court in 2010, has done more than anything else to reshape the contours of campaign fundraising.
A few federal court cases have broadly eased campaign finance rules, allowing donors to give unlimited sums. That kind of money largely has gone to super PACs.
Many super PACs have affiliated nonprofit "social welfare" organizations that spent hundreds of millions last year on issue ads. Those groups don't have to disclose their donors because they're governed by tax law. Open-government groups have pushed Congress, to no avail, for a law that would require politically active groups to disclose their finances.
The system faces further deregulation as the Supreme Court prepares to hear a case this year that could wipe away aggregate annual limits on direct contributions to candidates and official campaign committees.
Officials across the political spectrum already acknowledge that there is little oversight in the new world of political fundraising, where the Internal Revenue Service and Federal Election Commission have been reluctant to enforce what rules remain.
Experts suggest this could change.
While a Supreme Court decision looms, former FEC Chairman Michael Toner says the IRS may trigger a more significant shift by challenging the tax-exempt status of prominent outside groups -- one on the right and one on the left -- in federal court.
"I think it's only a matter of time," Toner said.
Such enforcement could have a massive ripple effect across the fundraising world for groups that use their nonprofit status to attract major donors seeking tax breaks. But the IRS has yet to act. An agency spokesman said he could not comment on potential enforcement activity.
Meanwhile, the number of outside groups leveraging the tax code to court major donors is growing.
Obama earlier in the year converted his victorious re-election campaign into an unprecedented nonprofit organization, Organizing for Action, designed to influence policy debates in Washington. Individual donations to the Obama campaign were capped at $2,500 last year; the new group has no such limits.