Washington (CNN)A new fight has erupted in the battle over big money in the 2020 White House election: Outside groups that support candidates of color are warning that calls for presidential contenders to disavow super PACs risk cutting off a crucial avenue for engaging minority voters.
Are calls for 2020 candidates to reject big money hurting candidates of color?
"We agree that money in politics is a problem," said Quentin James, the co-founder of The Collective PAC, a super PAC that has supported African-American candidates. "But the way to solve that is not to put our hands behind our backs and try to fight this battle in 2020."
The pushback comes as the crowded Democratic field faces pressure from progressives to take stands to keep special-interest money out of the Democratic nomination process. Most of the 2020 candidates have rejected money from corporate PACs, and many have said they do not want single-candidate super PACs engaged in their races.
One contender, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, has gone further, refusing to even attend high-dollar fundraisers.
Super PACs, a byproduct of the Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision and a related appeals court ruling, can raise money from virtually any source, including corporations, but they are barred from coordinating the spending with the candidates they support.
Their power was on display in the 2018 election: Just 10 mega-donors contributed a combined $436 million to influence federal races, a tally by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics shows. By contrast, an individual cannot donate more than $2,800 directly to a candidate for the primary or general election in 2020.
James said trying to root out super PACs that support individual candidates ignores the reality some candidates of color face: They don't have access to traditional pools of donors or long experience building digital programs to reach grassroots contributors.
His group and its arms raised a collective $6.5 million in recent years and provided early backing to Stacey Abrams and Andrew Gillum -- the 2018 gubernatorial candidates in Georgia and Florida, respectively. Abrams and Gillum took on establishment candidates to win their primaries and became the first black gubernatorial nominees in their states. They lost in the general election.
The 2020 field includes two black US senators, California Sen. Kamala Harris and New York Sen. Cory Booker, along with a Latino contender, former House and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro. All have said they do not want super PACs engaged in their races, although a Booker ally, San Francisco lawyer Steve Phillips, has launched one.
Harris, the second black woman elected to the US Senate, has reported raising a solid $12 million during the first fundraising quarter of the year. But she was outraised by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who built a massive small-donor base during his 2016 presidential bid. Sanders raised $18.2 million in 41 days.
On Sunday, Booker announced he raised $5 million during the first quarter — a number that puts him behind fundraising leaders. Castro has not released his totals but told CNN on Friday that he had not yet met the 65,000-donor threshold to join the early Democratic Party debates. New Democratic Party rules set minimum polling and donor requirements for candidates to qualify for the first two presidential debates this summer.
Only a tiny fraction of Americans donates to politicians in the first place. A little more than 1.5 million people gave more than $200 to federal candidates during last year's midterm elections -- or less than half of 1% of the US population, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
African Americans are an important voting bloc for Democrats. They accounted for nearly one in four voters who participated in Democratic primaries or caucuses in 2016, according to a CNN analysis of entrance and exit polls in 27 states.
But the racial wealth gap -- white households have about 6.5 times the wealth of black households -- means fewer African Americans have the tradition of contributing money to candidates, said Kimberly Peeler-Allen, the co-founder of Higher Heights. Higher Heights operates a political action committee that supports black women running for office.
"When you have donors who don't have this institutional habit of giving politically -- whether they are giving $5 a month or maxed-out checks -- it makes the whole process of being able to fund candidates who will carry the voices of candidates of color forward, that much harder," she told CNN.
Disavowing super PACs and other outside groups could set "up yet another barrier" for qualified candidates of color, Peeler-Allen said.
But rejecting big money in politics increasingly has become a litmus test for progressives in the Democratic Party. Nine liberal groups last month issued an open letter to the 2020 Democratic presidential field, urging all candidates to reject candidate-specific super PACs.
"Single-candidate super PACs fundamentally take power and influence away from everyday people and put it in the hands of big-money donors," according to the letter. Signatories included the watchdog group Public Citizen and End Citizens United, a group dedicated to overturning the 2010 ruling.
James and his wife, Stefanie Brown James, who co-founded The Collective PAC, have released their own open letter in response and have asked the progressive groups to withdraw their demands.
"One of the few sources of funding for the work to engage voters of color and support candidates of color has come from super PACs," they wrote. Politico first reported on the Collective PAC's letter.
Taking the moral high ground on money "sounds cool in a campaign speech," James told CNN. "But that's not what's happening day-to-day. That's not how we were able to help Andrew (Gillum) win his primary."
Patrick Burgwinkle, a spokesman for End Citizens United, said his group objects to single-candidate super PACs because they can "act as a shadow arm" of a campaign, allowing candidates to circumvent federal donation limits.
He signaled that his group would not object to outside political organizations working on broader issues, such as voter outreach.
"We believe voter engagement, registration, and turnout in communities of color is fundamentally important to a Democrat's ability to be successful in 2020," he said in an emailed statement. "All candidates need to work and dedicate resources to build long-lasting relationships in communities of color."
Robert Weissman, the president of Public Citizen, said the real solution is to "democratize the funding" for all candidates by publicly financing campaigns and encouraging small-dollar contributions.
"Super PACs are not a democratizing force," he said. "They are an expression of the political power of concentrated wealth."
This story has been updated.