Clinton, Sanders raise big bucks, call for campaign finance reform

Story highlights

  • Clinton addressed super PACs in Iowa Wednesday
  • Clinton and Sanders raised a combined $50 million this summer
  • Democrats have long tried to link Republicans to wealthy donors such as Charles and David Koch

Washington (CNN)Bernie Sanders says American politics is glued so strongly to the wallets of the elite that the country is creeping toward an "oligarchy." Hillary Clinton says elections today are close to "charging an entrance fee" as big money slowly corrodes the nation's democracy.

Yet the two leading Democratic contenders raised a combined $50 million-plus this summer.
Both White House hopefuls are placing a large emphasis on campaign-finance reform on the trail, railing against individual Republican billionaires by name and working to convert revulsion toward Wall Street into a partisan uprising against the wealthy and well connected. The candidates -- rhetorically, at least -- portray a dollar raised as a dollar that corrodes the democratic process.
    So when a student on Wednesday confronted Clinton in Iowa about how to square her bank accounts with her stump speech, she had some defending to do.
    "It is absolutely the case that my campaign is predominantly, my campaign itself is exclusively financed by contributors," Clinton told the town hall crowd in Mount Vernon, Iowa. "The vast majority of our contributors have given less than $100. That is how I have ended up raising more than ($)75 million."
    Clinton tried to draw the distinction between her fundraising and super PACs, the largest of which back Republican candidates. "I would hope that we would get to a point where those would no longer be operating. But that is not where we are today." (She noted there are super PACs backing her as well.)
    The apparent contradiction between bemoaning big money's role in politics while raising tens of millions of dollars doesn't appear to phase Democratic campaign-finance reformers.
    "I think it's fantastic that Hillary and Bernie are raising whatever they can to get elected -- as long as they commit clearly to reforming the system," said Lawrence Lessig, a Harvard professor who agreed to run for the Democratic nomination on a campaign finance reform platform only after he himself raised $1 million. "Regardless of who the nominee is, they're going to have a ton of money to go up against the Republican."
    Another Democratic rival, former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, picked up on the irony of Clinton and Sanders raising big money while talking up campaign finance reform in their campaigns.
    "I'm not naïve: campaign resources are important," O'Malley, who has struggled to raise any major dollars and hasn't disclosed how much he collected this summer, said in a statement announcing his reform package. "But the staggering figures required to run for the highest office in the land aren't as much a sign of muscle as they are an indication (of) just how broken our democracy is."
    For Sanders, his fundraising operation has helped further solidify his standing as a true contender. Powered by a legion of online donors that reminds some Democrats of the same base of Barack Obama, the self-declared socialist raised $26 million between July and September, according to his campaign (final numbers for the quarter must be filed by Oct. 15). Over 650,000 people have donated to Sanders, his campaign said, while the Vermont senator has only attended seven fundraisers as a candidate.
    Clinton used a more old-fashioned method: Capitalizing on decades of relationships and high-powered bundlers who organized laboriously throughout Sanders' summer rise, she cashed in on maxed-out checks to raise $28 million, her campaign said.
    For Sanders -- who has sworn off affiliating with a super PAC on principle despite its potential benefits to his electoral chances -- the amount of money he raised is seen as an affirmation of his message, not a contradiction of it.
    "Bernie Sanders has bluntly branded the campaign finance system that the ruling ushered in as corrupt," Michael Briggs, his spokesman said.

    Super PACs and outside money

    Clinton and Sanders' proposals for campaign reform suggest they have little problem with how campaigns raise money today.
    Their plans center on regulating those super PACs, which can collect checks of unlimited size as long as the groups don't coordinate with the campaign. (Like campaigns, super PACs must disclose their donors to the Federal Election Commission). They are also targeting 501(c)(4) nonprofits, such as the Koch brothers-linked Americans for Prosperity, which aren't required to provide the names of their donors.
    The Democrats' targets, however, tend to be the types of outlets that favor Republicans.
    Republican presidential candidates spent the first half of 2015 pouring record-setting donations into their allied super PACs, in some cases delaying their own campaigns in order to build heavyweight outside groups. The super PACs collected $250 million -- more than $100 million of which was funneled into groups backing Jeb Bush -- nearly double what the candidates themselves raised.
    Republican contenders this fall will continue to travel the country to audition privately in front of top Republican donors -- Ted Cruz will speak to the Club for Growth next week, and a full roster of Republicans will appear in front of billionaire Sheldon Adelson and the Republican Jewish Coalition this winter.
    Unlike Republican donors -- who have grown comfortable with donating to outside spending groups -- Democratic backers have been more reluctant to flood theirs with dollars. Clinton's main super PAC, Priorities USA Action, has been slow to raise top cash, collecting only about $15 million in the first half of 2015. (Priorities USA was founded as a pro-Barack Obama super PAC. The president, who had criticized the Citizens United decision, was called hypocritical at the time for then backing a super PAC.)
    Even the most ardent campaign-finance reformers say they aren't worried about the candidates' large takes. If the money is limited by law, controlled by the campaign and has donors' names attached, they say, the amount of those dollars doesn't raise eyebrows.
    "Candidates have to raise money to compete," said Fred Wertheimer, a longtime advocate of curbing money's influence. "So we don't see the test of whether they're serious on reforming the system as the amount of money they're raising."
    To be sure, Democratic complaints about GOP cash aren't new. Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid attempted to make the Koch brothers boogeymen last year (with little electoral success for Democrats). In 2012, spurred in part by reports that conservatives were planning to spend $1 billion to take the White House from Barack Obama, the president raised over $1 billion himself and outspent GOP nominee Mitt Romney.
    The sheer scale of the amount raised by Clinton and Sanders is almost exactly identical to the 2008 war between Clinton and Barack Obama -- Clinton raised the exact same amount in the summer of 2015 as she did in the summer of 2007. And that election ended up being the most expensive Democratic primary ever, a sum that could be beaten by this year's surprisingly competitive race.
    As she said in Iowa on Wednesday, Clinton believes that Democrats cannot afford to sit out from the fundraising game even as they work to change it from the White House.
    "We don't want to unilaterally disarm," Clinton said.