Amid early fundraising disclosures from 2016 presidential candidates—especially the staggering $114 million haul announced Thursday by Jeb Bush's campaign—political observers are warning that the U.S. has "officially ushered in the super PAC era of presidential politics."
Super PACs, or political action committees, are outside spending groups that can raise unlimited donations from corporations and individuals alike, though candidates are not allowed to coordinate with them. They arose partly out of the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court decision.
The super PAC supporting Bush, called Right to Rise, reported raising more than $103 million between January 6 and June 30 of this year. According to the Center for Responsive Politics and OpenSecrets.org, that's four times as much money as all super PACs—combined—raised during the same period in 2011. Bush's official campaign committee, which is limited to maximum donations of $5,400 per person, brought in a mere $11.4 million.
Those numbers leave little doubt that Bush is at the front of the pack among his Republican rivals for the party's presidential nomination.
But for Politico journalist Kenneth Vogel, they indicated something else, as well:
Any lingering doubts have been erased about whether the lure of seven-figure checks would be powerful enough to offset concerns about a patchwork of recently gutted — and loosely enforced — laws intended to restrict the effectiveness of unlimited political spending.
In this new reality, there’s less incentive for prospective commanders in chief to invest time and money in building an army of small- and medium sized donors for their campaigns, and more incentive to cultivate a handful of billionaire backers to pour cash into supportive big-money vehicles like super PACs.
"Jeb Bush has truly taken us into the Wild West era of campaign spending, where existing campaign finance rules are to be mocked, ignored and circumvented with a wink and a nod, and where there is no limit on giving—and presumably no limit on what’s being promised to the donors," echoed Public Citizen president Robert Weissman. "We can’t have a functioning democracy where leading presidential candidates operate in this fashion."
The first Federal Election Commission filing deadline for presidential candidates is Wednesday, July 15, but some organizations have released their totals early.
Democrat Hillary Clinton, for example, has reportedly raised $45 million through her campaign and $15.6 million through her super PAC. Republican Ted Cruz has racked up $14.5 million through his campaign, and an additional $38 million from super PACs.
Meanwhile, campaign finance reform advocate Bernie Sanders—who has said a central consideration for Supreme Court nominees should be their position on Citizens United—has refused a super PAC. Sanders has raised $15 million in small contributions from 250,000 donors.
And with Politico reporting that "not just the money, but also the power and clout are migrating to the super PACs and away from the campaigns and especially the party committees," the call to get big money out of politics is becoming increasingly urgent.
As Public Citizen's Weissman said: "It is clearer by the day that we need a fundamental overhaul of campaign finance rules, starting with a constitutional amendment to overturn the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling and reestablish commonsense rules, so everybody’s voice is heard."
In its "2016 Money Chase" explainer published in late June, NBC News offered this list of the major Super PACs and which candidate they're backing:
Jeb Bush: Right to Rise PAC
Ben Carson: Run Ben Run and One Vote
Chris Christie: America Leads
Ted Cruz: Keep the Promise PAC, Keep the Promise PAC I, Keep the Promise PAC II, Keep the Promise PAC III
Carly Fiorina: Conservative, Authentic, Responsive, Leadership for You and America (CARLY For America)
Lindsey Graham: Security Is Strength PAC
Mike Huckabee: Pursuing America's Greatness
John Kasich: New Day for America
George Pataki: We the People - Not Washington PAC
Rand Paul: America's Liberty PAC
Rick Perry: Opportunity and Freedom PAC
Marco Rubio: Conservative Solutions PAC
Donald Trump: Citizens for Restoring USA
Scott Walker: Unintimidated PAC
Hillary Clinton: Priorities USA
Martin O'Malley: Generation Forward