‘Not My Money’: Hillary and Bernie Distance Themselves from Supportive Super PACs

‘Not My Money’: Hillary and Bernie Distance Themselves from Supportive Super PACs

(Photo: AP/Tom Lynn)

 

The Democratic presidential candidates have talked quite a bit about the need for campaign-finance reform. Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have gone back-and-forth on the merits of their respective reform proposals, which are very similar.

But increasingly, who is or isn’t benefiting from outside spending has become a major point of contention in the race.

In Thursday night’s Democratic debate in Milwaukee, a PBS moderator asked Clinton about the flood of money flowing into Priorities USA Action, a Clinton-allied super PAC that has raised $40 million, much of it from the financial industry.

Clinton took offense to the notion that it’s her super PAC, saying “You're referring to a super PAC that we don’t coordinate, that was set up to support President Obama, that has now decided they want to support me.” Later in the debate, she said bluntly, “It’s not my PAC.”

Under federal election law, presidential campaigns cannot coordinate with outside spending groups in a long list of areas, such as strategy, events, and spending on ads. But with an ineffectual Federal Election Commission overseeing the system, the barrier between an individual candidate’s campaign and an individual super PAC has gradually eroded. 

As the International Business Times’s Political Capital blog notes, Clinton personally courted Priorities USA donors. And high-ranking members of her campaign, including her husband, former president Bill Clinton, have attended the super PAC’s events.

Hillary Clinton’s efforts to wall off her campaign from a super PAC that’s expected to be a major player if she gets the Democratic nomination is a clear reaction to Sanders’s repeated attacks on her political integrity. The Vermont senator has criticized her for taking millions in Wall Street donations and accepting lavish speaking fees from big banks.

Clinton’s assertions that Priorities USA is not in her sphere of influence will be hard to back up. As Slate’s Jim Newell put it, “The idea that there was Hillary Clinton just settin’ up the ol’ presidential campaign when along came this super PAC, unbeknownst to her, that decided to collect money on her behalf just for its own sake is risible.”

That is not to say that Bernie Sanders has been immune to scrutiny over friendly outside spending. The New York Times recently reported that a super PAC set up by National Nurses United, one of Sanders’s major union allies, had spent $1 million on ads, more in direct support for a candidate than any other outside group backing a Democrat.

Sanders has repeatedly said that he does not have a super PAC, but the Clinton campaign latched on to the Times report and called him out for disavowing outside political groups while directly benefiting from one.

The Sanders campaign pushed back on that notion, saying that the union is acting independently and stressing that the candidate doesn’t want help from any super PAC.

The Washington Post’s Fact Checker examined Sanders’s “I don’t have a super PAC” statement and concluded that although the Vermont senator’s claim was technically correct, but he should clarify future statements. 

“Sanders has not exploited the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, but is still reaping its benefits,” the Post’s Michelle Ye Hee Lee wrote. “There’s not much Sanders could do to stop outside groups, but he hasn’t actively denounced their help, either. He would be much more precise if he said: ‘I do not have a super PAC allied with me.’

Rather than muddying the waters, both candidates should be crystal clear about their ties. But don’t expect them to. For Bernie, moving in that direction would tarnish his message that he’s pure from all big-money sin. For Hillary, arguing that her campaign isn’t connected to multiple outside-spending operations will only give credence to charges that she is trying to downplay her obvious big-money support.