Hillary Clinton’s decision to personally raise money for a super PAC supporting her campaign is agitating her progressive critics, who see the move as further proof that the Democratic presidential frontrunner doesn’t share some of their values.
There was never any expectation that Clinton would renounce super PAC money this election cycle. But liberal activists determined to use the Democratic primary to pressure Clinton to embrace a progressive agenda say the idea of the former secretary of state personally wooing the wealthiest class of donors runs counter to the populist rhetoric she’s employed this year.
Within days of announcing her White House bid, Clinton had called out wealthy investors for paying too little in taxes and pledged to get big money out of politics. At the time, it was a welcome message for liberal Democrats who are uncomfortable with Clinton’s close ties to Wall Street and find the prominent role of super PACs in elections utterly distasteful.
But the recent revelation that Clinton will personally fundraise for a super PAC supporting her campaign – a decision to play by the rules of a system she has condemned as “dysfunctional” – has invited fresh eye-rolling. It has also exposed a core tension for Democrats, who have increasingly embraced super PACs at the same time that they decry the explosion of soft money in national politics.
Clinton’s campaign is explaining the decision as a matter of political necessity.
“With some Republican candidates reportedly setting up and outsourcing their entire campaign to super PACs and the Koch Brothers pledging $1 billion alone for the 2016 campaign, Democrats have to have the resources to fight back,” a Clinton campaign official said in an email, who spoke anonymously to discuss the sensitive topic of fundraising. “There is too much at stake for our future for Democrats to unilaterally disarm.”
Clinton’s expected involvement with Priorities USA has highlighted the contrast between her and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent who is Clinton’s only declared rival to date for the Democratic presidential nomination, as well as other potential challengers.
An independent from Vermont seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, Sanders has aggressively opposed super PAC donations. A long-shot candidate without a national fundraising operation, Sanders has no chance of matching Clinton’s fundraising haul and has little to lose by going after millionaire and billionaire donors.
On Capitol Hill last week, Sanders told CNN that Clinton’s decision to personally court super PAC donors was “unfortunate.”
“We’re living in a world since Citizens United where multi-millionaires and billionaires are playing a horrendous role in the political system,” Sanders said, referring to the Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling that paved the way for super PACs to direct virtually uncapped amounts of money to aid political candidates. “That’s why I believe that we need to overturn Citizens United and move to public funding of elections.”
Phil Noble, a South Carolina Democratic activist and supporter of former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, a potential Democratic candidate for president, said the development underscores what progressives view as a “fundamental disconnect” between Clinton and middle class voters.
“It’s not that she raises a bunch of money for a PAC that causes her problems with middle class voters. That is a symptom as opposed to the ailment,” Noble said. “The larger illness is she is out of touch with middle class voters – she does have a lifestyle and a history that is about as alien to middle class voters as corporate jets are to a Subaru.”
And activists who are pushing Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren to challenge Clinton see campaign finance reform as a major issue.
“Being a true champion for working families like Elizabeth Warren is about clearly and unequivocally supporting such critical priorities as a constitutional amendment overturning Citizens United,” said Erica Sagrans, campaign manager for Ready for Warren, a movement dedicated to drafting Sen. Elizabeth Warren into the 2016 race.
Clinton’s personal involvement with Priorities USA marks the latest chapter in the Democratic Party’s evolving relationship with super PACs.
Democrats initially fiercely opposed Citizens United. But for all of their rhetoric against super PACs, and as much as the party continues to use the Supreme Court decision as a political rallying cry, over the years political interest has largely won out over progressive idealism.
In 2012, President Barack Obama reversed course, declaring after years of keeping his distance from super PACs that his campaign would participate in raising money for Priorities USA.
Now that tension is being brought to new heights as the party’s next likely presidential nominee personally plans to drum up support for a super PAC backing her candidacy.
Clinton allies also see that her fundraising prowess and the depth of her connections with the kinds of donors who can cut multi-million dollar checks will likely make her a formidable competitor against any Republican candidate she may face in the general election. Officials are careful to emphasize, however, that Clinton and everyone else involved with her campaign will strictly follow the law as they solicit funds for Priorities USA.
The 2016 money race is well underway on the other side of the political aisle.
Declared GOP candidates including Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Marco Rubio of Florida, as well as expected candidates like former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, are on a fundraising tear. And they’ve shown no signs of distancing themselves from super PAC money. Cruz launched his campaign in March, and the senator’s allies declared that an affiliated network of pro-Cruz super PACs had raised upwards of $30 million in just a matter of days.
The stiff competition against Republican money is a reality that some progressive leaders say they cannot ignore.
Former Vermont governor and Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean said it would be unwise for Clinton to reject super PAC money.
“Unfortunately, if you don’t play by the same rules everybody else does, you end up losing elections,” said Dean, founder of Democracy for America, one of the groups behind the draft Warren movement. “The key is to change the rules, and I think we have a much better chance of doing that with her as president than we do with one of the Republicans.”