2016 Elections Will Be All About Rich Donors; Here’s Why

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It is easy to forget Jeb Bush is not yet running for president, as the former Republican governor of Florida has spent the past several months engaged in nonstop fundraising, headlining high-price events at resorts and country clubs across the United States. He is clearly benefiting from the nationwide fundraising network the Bush family has built over the past several decades.

As top Republican donors who attended a Sunday event told The Washington Post, Bush said his Right to Rise super PAC has raised more money in its first 100 days of operation than “any other Republican operation in modern history.” The likely presidential candidate did not give an exact figure, but he did say contributions are on track to hit $100 million by the end of May. His team has even limited donations to $1 million because of the sheer speed with which contributions are being collected.

This news signaled to his supporters that both Bush and his advisers believe he will have a sizable political war chest to fund his fledgling campaign, as donors told the Post. He may have a lot of obstacles to overcome, including the legacy of his brother George W. Bush, but his financial weight will make him a dangerous contender in the crowded Republican primaries. Jeb is well on his way to locking down major Republican donors, a move that sidelined Mitt Romney and crippled Chris Christie.

By setting $100 million as a fundraising goal, Bush’s team has shined a light on how it will fight to secure the nomination. His advisers want to intimidate the wide Republican field with Bush’s massive fundraising abilities, a strategy mirroring the one his brother George used to win the nomination in 2000. In presidential elections, fundraising is important not only because it builds needed resources, but because it signals strength.

Of course, as of yet, this funding is not financing any nascent campaign, but is directed to Bush’s super PAC, an organization dedicated to supporting “candidates who want to restore the promise of America with a positive, conservative vision of reform and renewal.” Its name, Right to Rise, is a nod to the growing weight the issue of income inequality has on political discourse. “We believe the income gap is real, but that only conservative principles can solve it by removing the barriers to upward mobility,” reads the super PAC’s mission statement, likely a preview of the theme for Bush’s yet-to-be-announced candidacy.

Once Bush officially announces, donations will be limited to $2,700 per person. Because of campaign finance restrictions, he will like stave off his announcement for as long as possible.

Bush may have highlighted how his fundraising efforts have eclipsed those of his Republican predecessors, but any comparison with past elections contains little value, because he is preparing for his campaign in a new fashion. Unlike any other fledgling Republican candidate, Bush has organized a super PAC, a political organization that can accept unlimited donations from both individuals and corporations.

His group has pledged to use its funds to support a candidate who supports Bush-brand conservatism. While he has not announced any intention to run for president, ostensibly, this fundraising is preparation for his campaign. Past Republicans — including George W. Bush, who previously held the record for the best presidential fundraising debut of a GOP candidate, collecting close to $37 million in the first four months of 1999 — were constrained by campaign laws as they launched their campaigns without using a super PAC to lay the groundwork.

For now, only a few of the nearly 20 potential presidential contenders have set up exploratory committees, which were once the way candidates announced their interest in the White House.

But those Republicans who have declared their intention to run are no financial slouches, although they are now limited by more restrictive election fundraising rules. While Bush is raising cash for his super PAC the traditional way, by holding fundraisers attended by high-roller Republican supporters, candidates like Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida have been able to raise huge sums through individual donors.

Regardless of this difference in fundraising styles, there is a truth evident in these massive donation figures: A new era of campaign finance madness has begun. Jack Oliver, President George W. Bush’s 2004 finance director, told Bloomberg Politics that in order to be competitive, Republican primary candidates must raise $100 million by the end of 2015.

Cruz has already launched a massive fundraising machine; his network of four affiliated super PACs will have collected $31 million by the end of the week of April 27, according to CNN. Even though these super PACs cannot work directly with his campaign, they that prove Cruz, who has built his reputation on legislative brinkmanship, cannot be discounted as also-ran just yet.

“People were saying you know Cruz is good and he’s a conservative and this and that, but he’s not going to be able to raise money and he’s not going to be able to win,” campaign spokesman Rick Tyler said to CNN. “It’s just very difficult to get out your message when you don’t have the resources to do it. Here we have a conservative who actually can raise money. And not just grassroots money, but major donor money.”

Experts in campaign financing say this tactic is unprecedented; it is also concerning. This strategy will likely hand major donors even more influence over how their dollars are spent in presidential campaigns. Dathan Voelter, an attorney and treasurer of three of Cruz’s four super PACs, told CNN that this new setup was designed to give donors “influence and control over the expenditures” of the organizations they bankroll.

In other words, super PACs working in tandem offer potential donors an a la carte menu of political action committees to support. As a result, these wealthy donors will have more power over election outcomes. Already, a small group of extremely wealthy donors, including the Koch brothers and the liberal billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer, have spent an unparalleled sum of money in recent elections.

Super PACs were only made permissible by the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United campaign finance ruling, meaning they have only played a role in one previous election. These technically independent campaign organizations, sanctioned by the candidates themselves, can solicit unlimited amounts of cash and spend unlimited dollars on elections, but they cannot directly work with a presidential campaign.

They may be, and often are, staffed by a candidates’ former advisers, but the groups only play a supporting role, namely producing and running ads. The fact that key advisers of Rand Paul and Scott Walker have chosen to head super PACs rather than help the actual campaign prove just how important these groups are and suggests that the restrictions on coordination between the so-called independent super PACs and candidates are growing more inconsequential.

Campaign-finance law does prohibit candidates, and any “entity directly or indirectly established, financed, maintained or controlled by or acting on behalf” from fundraising beyond legal caps. Committees formed by onetime aides and with the candidate’s endorsement are subject to that bar, but the Federal Election Commission did not crack down on such groups supporting Mitt Romney or Barack Obama in 2012.

In 2016, the election finance system will “be stretched and tested, and more blatantly violated because 2012 was Round 1, and there was no enforcement,” as Fred Wertheimer, an advocate for stricter finance restrictions, told The New York Times.

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