Final Blow to Campaign Finance Regulation?

A lot of observers read about Jeb Bush sending his chief political strategist Mike Murphy off to run his Super-PAC and thought something fundamental, and fundamentally wrong, was happening. But election law expert Rick Hasen has put it all into perspective: this is the next-to-last step before the complete abandonment of any pretense we there are limits on political giving. Hasen adds a key element to our understanding of what Bush is doing: aside from letting the Super-PAC become his de facto campaign organization, Jeb is willing and able during this extended period of alleged non-candidacy to openly coordinate with, and raise money for, said Super-PAC, which means anybody can write him a check for unlimited dollars.

Because Bush claims he is neither a candidate nor even seriously considering a presidential run, the anti-coordination rules don’t apply to him. He can talk about future campaign strategy all he wants and set the Right to Rise robot to work once he declares his candidacy.

More importantly, by participating in literally dozens of fundraisers for Right to Rise during a period when donors know he can fully direct what it does, donors know the best way of gaining influence over Bush (and the chances for influence with a future Bush administration) is by giving money to the group—lots of it.

In the old days (think the days of the fundraising of Bush’s brother, George W. Bush), the main way of gaining influence was by becoming a campaign bundler. Bundlers not only give the maximum few thousand dollars to the candidate’s campaign; they also get friends, relatives, and acquaintances to do the same. Now, one doesn’t have to become a bundler for the campaign to curry favor: One can simply write a check for $1 million or more to Right to Rise.
By signaling that Right to Rise is his campaign arm, Jeb Bush has broken down the wall between his super PAC and his campaign committee in the eyes of donors. Preventing coordination and preserving independence was one of the last walls that were left.

Indeed, as Hasen points out, the idea of non-coordination and independence for non-campaign advocacy groups was central to the reasoning, such as it was, of Citizens United. Jeb’s making a mockery of the few rules left.

The next step will be simply handing $1 million checks to candidates. Right now that’s still illegal, but campaign finance opponents will challenge those candidate contribution limits as ineffective since (the Bush campaign will show) super PACs can serve almost the same purpose. Indeed, campaign lawyer Jim Bopp (the brains behind the Citizens United lawsuit) signaled as much this week, arguing that the way to take unaccountable money out of politics is to let individuals give whatever they want directly to candidates.

Hard to argue with the logic. If we’re going to let Super-PACs become not just “bridge partners” for candidates, to follow the metaphor used by Tim Alberta and Shane Goldmacher in explaining Bush’s arrangement with Mike Murphy, but a fully programmed robot, to use Hasen’s metaphor, then why bother pretending any more?

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.