The year’s first TV ad blitz of the Democratic presidential race hit the airwaves this week, promoting Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and his vow to combat climate change.
But instead of coming from Inslee’s campaign, the ads were funded by a super PAC that an Inslee ally helps run.
The early spending by the pro-Inslee group underscores how super PACs unleashed by the Supreme Court’s blockbuster Citizens United ruling nearly a decade ago, and other court decisions that followed, still will play a role in the 2020 campaign even as they pose political risks for candidates.
Super PACs, which can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money to influence elections, have become one of the most potent tools in modern politics – allowing wealthy donors to spend millions of dollars to boost favored candidates. But the Democratic Party’s liberal activists warn of super PACs drowning out the voices of average voters and have sought to make rejecting big money a litmus test for Democratic candidates.
In a field crowded with candidates competing for campaign dollars, however, super PACs offer a route for little-known candidates to break out.
In 2012, for instance, deep-pocketed outside political groups helped extend a Republican presidential primary that featured a dozen candidates. Super PACs funded by two wealthy supporters – mutual fund multi-millionaire Foster Friess and casino mogul Sheldon Adelson – ran TV ads that helped keep alive the campaigns of former senator Rick Santorum and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, respectively.
“These were candidates who were basically running on fumes,” said Anthony Corrado, a campaign-finance expert who teaches at Colby College in Maine. “They relied on the support of super PACs to give them fresh legs to stay in the race for another month or two.”
Eventually, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney won the nomination, but not before a barrage of ads from the pro-Gingrich super PAC attacked his wealth and private-equity career – themes Democrats revisited in the general election to help President Barack Obama successfully secure a second term.
Four years later, the 2016 Republican nomination featured 17 candidates and nearly as many outside groups aligned with candidates.
But the 2020 race marks the first wide-open primary for Democrats since court rulings in 2010 paved the way for these groups to influence elections.
So far, 14 Democrats have announced their White House bids or presidential exploratory committees, approaching the record 16 major candidates who ran for the Democratic nomination in 1976, according to a tally by FiveThirtyEight.com.
As many as 10 other candidates, including former Vice President Joe Biden, three House members and two former governors, are weighing bids.
Many Democratic contenders are eager to show they will reduce the influence of moneyed special interests in elections. All 14 of the Democratic presidential contenders, for instance, say they will reject any donations from corporate PACs. At least six have declared they don’t want any help from super PACs.
The major Democratic candidates with public statements opposing single-candidate super PACs include Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro, New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, California Sen. Kamala Harris, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker.
Inslee, a two-term governor who has made confronting climate change the focus of his campaign, stands out for embracing one as he mounts a long-shot bid for the White House.
Within days of his campaign kickoff, Act Now on Climate – the super PAC supporting him – announced it would spend at least $1 million on television ads in Iowa and national cable, along with a round of digital advertising.
A key operative in the group, Corey Platt, served as political director of the Democratic Governors Association, which Inslee chaired last year.
“They want to fight climate change. I have been fighting climate change now for 20 years,” Inslee told CNN’s John Berman earlier this week. “I believe it is a message that we need all Americans to join in on. I’m not going to speak against them or condemn them.”
Christy Setzer, a spokeswoman for the super PAC, said the group is “another way for those who feel strongly about solving the climate crisis – and who support Jay Inslee’s leadership on the issue – to get involved.”
Inslee’s posture has drawn sharp criticism from progressive activists.
Act Now on Climate “doesn’t exist to fight climate change,” said Patrick Burgwinkle, a spokesman for End Citizens United, a political action committee dedicated to reversing the 2010 ruling. “It exists to give wealthy donors a way to contribute unlimited amounts of money to help Governor Inslee win.”
Democratic voters, he said, “want candidates to show leadership on getting big money out of their campaigns.”
On Friday, End Citizens United joined six other liberal groups in sending an open letter to the 2020 field, demanding that each candidate not only disavow single-candidate super PACs, but demand that their allies shut down such groups.
At least one other candidate-specific super PAC has plans to participate in the 2020 primary.
Steve Phillips, a prominent Democratic donor in San Francisco, launched Dream United, a super PAC to back Booker’s bid for the Democratic nomination.
Booker and his campaign aides have maintained he opposes any super PAC involvement in the presidential race. Jeff Giertz, Booker’s campaign spokesperson, underscored this when he said the senator was against super PACs aimed at supporting “his or anyone’s candidacy for president.”
But Phillips has vowed to continue.
“Cory Booker’s candidacy is the best vehicle for inspiring the kinds of large voter turnout in communities of color that will be necessary for progressives to win up and down the ticket in 2020,” Phillips said in a recent statement to CNN. “What we are doing goes beyond Booker. We are doing this for our country.”