Gage Skidmore/Wikimedia Commons

Jeb Bush’s $114 million haul and the illusions of campaign finance

'It represents a complete collapse of the campaign finance system.'

Feb 29, 2020, 11:40 pm*

Tech

 

Aaron Sankin

Over the last few months, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders (I) raised more money for his 2016 presidential campaign than did former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

Sure, Sanders had a considerable head-start by launching his campaign early. But Sanders is a a self-described “democratic socialist.” He’s running a left-wing campaign against the deep-pocketed corporate interests that typically dominate political giving brining in more money than the scion of America’s foremost political dynasty. That he raised more money than Bush seems almost unbelievable. 

That’s because it’s not really true.

“It represents a complete collapse of the campaign finance system.”

While Sanders’s showing in the race for the Democratic nomination against former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is certainly impressive, and he’s thus far drawn the largest crowds of any candidate, simply comparing the fundraising of the two official campaign organizations only tells a small sliver of the story.

In the five years since the U.S. Supreme Court opened the floodgates of unlimited contributions to third-party groups with its Citizens United decision, the role of super PACs in the political process has grown exponentially. Bush’s 2016 presidential campaign has taken it to a whole new level by essentially outsourcing the core of his campaign to a super PAC called Right To Rise.

While the Bush campaign itself may have only generated $11.4 million in contributions so far, the super PAC, which has no limits on what it is allowed to raise from each individual donor, has raked in $103 million

The combined $114 million fundraising total of the Bush campaign and the Right To Rise super PAC is staggering, especially considering Election Day is still 16 months away. To put that dollar figure in context, it’s more money that Mitt Romney raised in his entire 2012 primary campaign. It’s more money than either Bill Clinton or Bob Dole raised for the entire 1996 race. Prior to the 1984 Reagan-Mondale race, it’s more money than was ever spent in a presidential contest by both major party candidates combined.

In Citizens United, the court’s logic was, as long as super PACs function independently of candidates, they shouldn’t be held to the same came contribution limits as the official campaign organizations themselves. To do so would limit free speech (in the form of political donations), the court’s majority found.

However, good-government advocates, like the Campaign Legal Center’s Larry Noble, argue that the system has evolved in recent years to render any separation between super PACs and the campaigns they support effectively moot. With no meaningful rules in place stopping powerful campaign donors—be they big corporations, labor unions, or politically-minded billionaires—from funneling a virtually infinite amount of money into whatever campaign they wish. Right to Rise’s $103 million campaign haul thus far shows how Bush’s conception of a campaign effectively outsourced to a super PAC has been wildly successful. “It represents a complete collapse of the campaign finance system,” said Noble.

Official presidential campaigns are limited to $2,700 donations from a single source, per election cycle. Super PACs, on the other hand, have no such limit. The key to keeping this system functioning is that super PACs are prohibited from coordinating with the candidate. However, not only is the Federal Election Commission’s (FEC) bar for coordination between a candidate and an super PAC far lower than what an outside observer might reasonably expect, but Bush has engaged in some questionably legal tactics to circumvent many of those rules.

During the first half of 2015, Bush was engaged in what the Campaign Legal Center argued in complaints to both the FEC and the Department of Justice was an elaborate fiction—that Bush wasn’t actively running for president. Bush asserted he was merely thinking about making the decision whether or not to run for president, while essentially doing the exact same things he would if has had already announced. Bush made speeches, hosted fundraisers, and got his face on television as often as possible.

The likely reason for Bush not officially jumping into the race until mid-June was that, since he wasn’t technically a candidate, there were no rules about his involvement with Right To Rise—which happens to coincidentally share same name as a leadership PAC, one subject to a donation cap, established by the Bush campaign itself. Prior to announcing his run, Bush could work directly with the the Right To Rise super PAC to shape strategy, craft messages, and raise funds. After his official announcement, Bush could then step away, confident the the official campaign and the super PAC supporting that campaign would be able to march in lock-step.

Even after the announcement and filing of papers with the federal government about his intent to run, Bush himself is still allowed to work with Right To Rise on a daily basis. The FEC’s coordination rules don’t prohibit a candidate from headlining a fundraising event thrown by a supposedly independent super PAC.

Bush can speak at as many Right To Rise super PAC events as he wants. The only caveat is, he’s not allowed to personally instruct donors to give in excess of $5,000 each. Noble argues this rule is so easy circumvent that it’s virtually nonexistent.

“Usually what they do, is that if the candidate is actually going to raise money, he might say something with a wink and a nod like, ‘I’m asking individuals here to give up to $5,000 to the super PAC.’ But, as soon as he sits down, somebody can stand up and say, ‘I’m asking you to dig into your pockets and give a million dollars,” Noble explained. 

He adds that some material presented to event attendees likely contain a small disclaimer about the candidate only personally asking for a $5,000 contribution. “The person talking before him and the person talking after him can say ‘Thank you, Jeb, that was very good, but you all realize, of course, a super PAC can take an unlimited donations from individuals and corporations.”

The entire point is rendered ridiculous when many of these fundraisers cost up to $100,000 per head just to get in the door.

Traditionally, the role of super PACs within a given race was fairly limited. They made independent expenditures, like buying television or Web ads supporting the candidate or attacking his or her opponent. Right To Rise, on the other hand, is likely to take on many of the standard duties usually reserved for official campaigns. The group is expected to do activities like door-to-door politicking, training supporters how to speak about the candidate, oppositions research, voter registration, and phone banking.

“People think the FEC is dysfunctional. It’s worse than dysfunctional.”

Both in the sense of raising money and how that money is spent helping the candidate get elected, Right To Rise is effectively supplanting the actual infrastructure of the Bush campaign. “Really what it allows is a conglomerate to be formed where you have certain divisions doing certain things and some of them claiming they’re independent, but they’re not,” insisted Noble.

While all of these drastic shifts in how campaigns work are occurring, federal regulators are too hopelessly mired in partisan gridlock to police any violations. In a recent interview with the New York Times, FEC Chairwoman Ann Ravel said, “The likelihood of the laws being enforced is slim. … I never want to give up, but I’m not under any illusions. People think the FEC is dysfunctional. It’s worse than dysfunctional.”

Remember: Bush still has over a year to raise money before the general election, assuming Donald Trump doesn’t maintain his current polling lead over the rest of the GOP field. As fundraising naturally ramps up between now an Election Day, the flow of funds into Right To Rise will only increase.

Photo by Gage Skidmore/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

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*First Published: Jul 13, 2015, 11:33 am