2016 Marks a New Era for Dark Money

AP Photo/Frank Franklin II

Democratic presidential candidate, former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks to supporters Saturday, June 13, 2015, on Roosevelt Island in New York, in a speech promoted as her formal presidential campaign debut. 

This article originally appeared at Common Dreams.

While Democratic candidates are lining up to denounce the huge influence that dark money is having on politics in the U.S., a new report says that 2016 presidential candidates are relying on such secret contributions "like never before."

In a speech before thousands, likely watched by millions more, Hillary Clinton formally launched her presidential bid on Saturday. During the address given on New York's Roosevelt Island, the Democratic frontrunner railed against the "endless flow of secret, endless money" in politics, saying that she would support a Constitutional amendment to undo the Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United "if necessary."

These strong words, directed at the large majority of Americans who believe that money has "too much influence" in contemporary American politics, come at the outset of an election cycle expected to attract unprecedented levels of outside spending. 

For his part, hopeful Democratic nominee Bernie Sanders has sworn off Super PACs and has introduced legislation to dismantle Citizens United.

Alternately, Clinton has come under fire for her long-time association with billionaire donors as well as for the campaign Super PACs backing her bid. Critics were skeptical that the candidate's "vague"nod towards a constitutional amendment would amount to much.

"Clinton appears to think rhetoric alone can mislead American voters justifiably fed up with shadowy super PAC spending," Kurt Walters, campaign manager with the money in politics reform group Rootstrikers, said in an email statement. "In fact, far from offering concrete plans for reform, Clinton has actively pried open more ways for big money to flow into the political system, like her unprecedented coordination with a super PAC, Correct the Record."

However, she is not alone. A new report by the Brennan Center for Justice published Friday outlines the ways in which the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling—and thus Super PACs —has reshaped the political landscape.

"The 2016 candidates are using super PACs like never before," says report author Brent Ferguson, Counsel in the Brennan Center’s Democracy program.

"While many have understood that super PACs would make a significant impact on American elections," Ferguson continues, "few could have predicted the speed with which they have evolved and moved to the center of our political system." According to the analysis, the six ways that candidates are engaging with these outside big-money groups are:

1. Presidential aspirants appear to be delaying their formal announcements to avoid following rules that apply to candidates.

"There is significant media speculation that a few candidates have delayed declaring that they are running for President to avoid laws that prevent them from coordinating with and raising unlimited money for super PACs," the report charges.

According to the analysis, government watchdogs Democracy 21 and the Campaign Legal Center have already filed complaints with the FEC against Republican candidates Jeb Bush, Rich Santorum and Scott Walker, as well as Democratic hopeful former Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley.

2. Several candidates' top aides may be working for super PACs.

The report cites a recent Washington Post story which revealed that a top Clinton adviser is planning to run a supportive super PAC in order "to send an unequivocal signal that Clinton wants donors to rally around the independent group." Advisers of Bush and Rand Paul have similarly led outside donation groups.

3. Campaigns are fundraising for their preferred super PACS and other outside groups like never before.

Occasions where candidates stump not for their campaigns—which can only accept donor contributions up to $5,000 a year—but for a super PAC with unlimited contribution levels has become "commonplace for top-level candidates," the report finds.

4. Candidates are benefiting from a new species of dark money group with very close ties to the candidates and their super PACs

Candidates in the 2016 election cycle will likely benefit from other non-disclosure donor groups including nonprofits, usually organized under sections 501(c)(4)-(6). While these groups "played a role in previous elections," now most of these "top-spending dark money groups" are associated with a single candidate.

5. Super PACs may be expressly coordinating with candidates and relying on a questionable exception to justify it.

The report cites at least one super PAC, the aforementioned Correct the Record, which has explicitly announced plans to coordinate with a candidate by distributing unpaid online communications. The study says that the group is bypassing regulation against such activity by "using the same law firm as Clinton, saying its actions are legal because it will engage in unpaid online communications, 'disseminating information about Clinton on its Web site and through its Facebook and Twitter accounts.'"

6. Candidates are using outside groups to serve basic campaign functions, not just to buy television and mail advertisements.

Dark money groups are now extending their reach beyond the hallmark negative advertising campaigns and are now backing grassroots and voter turnout efforts, the study finds.

"This means that candidates may be indebted to super PAC donors for more than just attack ads," Ferguson notes, "they may come to rely on them for running viable campaigns."

The report says that lack of enforcement is driving this political trend, where undisclosed donors contribute millions of dollars to essential back shadow campaigns. "Congress and the FEC have consistently failed to act while the current system has  been dismantled," the report concludes. "Until that changes, we will continue to  see politicians push the envelope, moving our elections further and further toward an elite bastion of funders and away from everyday Americans."

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