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Super PACs lead election cash splash as White House race nears $1B spent

Big-money super PACs not officially aligned with party candidates have raised nearly half the 2016 election haul to date

The 2016 White House race is on its way to being the most expensive in history.

Presidential candidates and the political groups supporting them combined to raise more than $837 million during 2015, driven by a massive influx of cash to big-money super PACs, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of new campaign finance filings.

The new filings show that the campaigns of Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders and Republican contenders Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio raised the most impressive sums in 2015. This effectively ensures they’ll remain in the presidential race long past Monday’s Iowa caucuses.

Nearly half the presidential money raised in 2015 came from super PACs, which have no contribution limits. Republican White House hopefuls have been particularly reliant on them.

Super PACs backing GOP presidential contenders raised one-third more cash last year than the candidates’ campaigns — a significant departure from four years ago, when GOP presidential candidates outraised their supportive super PACs by more than 3 to 1.

Federal regulators sanctioned super PACs in 2010 after the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling and a lower court decision. The super PACs are supposed to avoid coordinating their spending with the politicians they support, but many nevertheless are closely tied.

The result: The presidential campaign is now a super-PAC-fueled arms race in which almost everyone has a money bomb.

Some political observers say the increased flow of big money into political campaigns has helped give voters more choices and information. But others fret that wealthy donors have hijacked elections, distorted the public policy process and skewed politicians’ priorities.

“Super PACs likely encouraged more candidates to get into the 2016 GOP presidential race,” said Jay Goodliffe, a political science professor at Brigham Young University. “Even if their polls were not initially good or there were other setbacks, the super PAC could help keep them afloat.”

But the widespread embrace of super PACs isn’t shared by Adam Lioz, a policy adviser at the left-leaning think tank Demos. “Your success and your longevity as a candidate should depend upon the people you can rally to your cause,” he said — not a few people writing “million dollar checks … People are tired of being bombarded by ads, especially when they know that those ads are paid for by the 1 percent.”

Super PAC can’t buy Bush love

Here’s what super PACs aren’t this presidential election: a guarantee of success for any candidate.

Take Right to Rise USA, the super PAC supporting former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, which has raised and spent more money than any other super PAC active in the 2016 presidential race.

Despite this, Bush has languished in the polls. The last poll sponsored by The Des Moines Register before Monday night’s caucuses showed Bush earning just 2 percent of the expected vote.

Most of Right to Rise USA’s $118 million haul was collected before Bush officially announced his candidacy and while Bush was traveling the country helping the super PAC raise funds.

Documents filed Sunday show the pro-Bush super PAC’s largest donor during the fourth quarter of 2015 was C.V. Starr and Co., a financial firm headed by Maurice “Hank” Greenberg, a former chairman and CEO of insurance giant AIG. The company donated $10 million in October.

Another major donor is the Oklahoma-based firm Rooney Holdings, which has given $2.3 million to Right to Rise USA. The company’s president and CEO — L. Francis Rooney III — is a veteran GOP fundraiser and served as President George W. Bush’s ambassador to Vatican City.

Thanks in part to the largesse of such wealthy supporters, Right to Rise USA raised more than three times as much as Bush’s campaign last year.

Right to Rise USA has spent more than $60 million to date. Most of that money has been targeting voters in the critical early states of Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada, which hold their presidential nominating contests in February.

The group has accounted for more than 1 in 4 TV ads on the GOP side of the race, according to a Center for Public Integrity review of data provided by Kantar Media/CMAG, a firm that monitors broadcast TV ads as well as those on national — but not local — cable.

Republicans Scott Walker, Rick Perry, George Pataki, Bobby Jindal and Lindsey Graham all dropped out of the presidential race last year despite having super PACs in their corners.

Republican Party front-runner Donald Trump has disavowed super PACs — which he has called a “scam.” A billionaire real estate mogul and reality TV star, he raised less money last year than most of his rivals: $19 million, including nearly $13 million of his own funds. He has benefited from his unique celebrity status, coupled with endless — and free — media coverage.

While Trump initially vowed to self-fund his campaign, he has raised nearly $6.6 million from other donors. About 75 percent of that sum has come from donors giving $200 or less.

Outsized super PAC influence

Bush isn’t the only presidential candidate who has had a supportive super PAC outraise his campaign.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Ohio Gov. John Kasich collected less money last year than groups backing them raised. The pro-Christie super PAC America Leads amassed $16 million last year, while Christie’s campaign raised about $7.2 million. And a pair of pro-Kasich super PACs — New Day for America and New Day Independent Media Committee — combined to raise nearly $18 million in 2015, while Kasich’s campaign collected about $7.6 million.

These super PACs have largely directed their advertising barrages on New Hampshire, where Kasich and Christie are hoping a victory over Rubio, a senator from Florida, will help them garner momentum and support from the Republican Party’s establishment.

Rubio’s campaign raised about $33 million in 2015, while his main supportive super PAC — the Conservative Solutions PAC — raised $30 million. A separate pro-Rubio nonprofit that doesn’t disclose its donors announced last summer that it raised about $16 million — of which it has spent at least $8.5 million on TV ads.

Tucker Martin, a spokesman for America Leads, said the super PAC’s ad buys have been successful in bringing Christie’s message “directly to voters in their living rooms.”

Conservative Solutions PAC spokesman Jeffrey Sadosky said his group’s “air cover has been incredibly important,” especially as Rubio has come increasingly under attack.

Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz greets people after a campaign event at the Johnson County Fairgrounds in Iowa City, Iowa, Jan. 31, 2016.
Joshua Lott/Getty Images

Connie Wehrkamp, a spokeswoman for the pro-Kasich super PACs, did not respond to a request for comment.

Jeffrey Peck, a top Democratic lobbyist in Washington, D.C., at the firm Peck Madigan Jones, told the Center for Public Integrity that “the need for money breeds the need for more money … If you are in a race where your competitors have tremendous amounts of super PAC money being spent, then for you to be competitive, you need to do the same thing.”

Meanwhile, a network of eight super PACs has formed to support the presidential bid of Cruz, a senator from Texas. These groups — one of which has already disbanded — combined to raise more than $42 million in 2015.

His campaign collected $47 million last year — more money than any other Republican candidate, save retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, who raised $54 million but burned through nearly 90 percent of that.

Cruz entered 2016 with nearly $19 million in the bank — more than any other GOP campaign. Megadonors supporting his bid include hedge fund manager Robert Mercer, businessman Toby Neugebauer and the Wilks family of Texas, which made its fortune in the fracking business.

Larry Levy, a lawyer for the Mercer-funded Keep the Promise Super I PAC, which raised $11 million last year, said his super PAC was helping “engage voters” and provide “positive reasons on why Sen. Cruz would make the best candidate.”

In addition to TV ads, Levy said, Keep the Promise I has made significant investments in radio ads, digital ads and field organizers. “Super PACs, when they started, were just advertising machines,” he said. “We’ve been something different.”

Dems battle with big money

While super PACs have dominated the TV airwaves in the GOP presidential race, such groups have so far played a much less significant role for the Democrats.

Just don’t expect it to stay that way.

Clinton’s super PAC cavalry is ready in the wings: The main super PACs supporting her raised nearly $48 million in 2015. So far, the groups have spent less than $13 million. The largest, Priorities USA Action, raised a $10 million in January of this year and has secured more than $40 million in pledges, according to The New York Times.

Might Priorities USA Action jump into the fray against Sanders, a senator from Vermont, if he wins Iowa, New Hampshire or both?

“We will continue to work as hard as we can to elect Hillary Clinton president throughout the primary season and into the general,” said Justin Barasky, the spokesman for Priorities USA Action. “We’re the only super PAC right now that isn’t being forced to spend heavily, and that speaks to the strength of Hillary Clinton’s candidacy.” 

Priorities USA Action’s largest donors include billionaires George Soros, who gave $7 million last year, and Haim Saban and Cheryl Saban, who each gave $2.5 million. Financiers Donald Sussman and Herbert Sandler also each gave $2.5 million to Priorities USA Action last year.

These five megadonors accounted for more than 40 percent of the $41 million Priorities USA Action raised.

Like her supportive super PAC, Clinton’s campaign has relied more heavily on wealthy patrons. In 2015 about 16 percent of the $116 million Clinton raised came from people who gave $200 or less.

Sanders, who is neck and neck with Clinton in most recent polls in Iowa and New Hampshire, has relied overwhelmingly on grass-roots donors to build his own big-money political machine. In 2015 he raised about $75 million. More than 70 percent of that came from donors giving $200 or less.

Unlike Clinton, Sanders has disavowed super PACs, although he has benefited from about $1 million in spending by a super PAC of a national nurses’ labor union.

Meanwhile, Martin O’Malley holds the distinction of being the only candidate so far to qualify for the country’s nearly obsolete public finance system. He raised $4.8 million last year. His supportive super PAC collected only about $800,000.

The last major presidential candidate to participate in the public financing system was Republican John McCain in 2008. Because of the system’s spending limits, McCain was easily outspent by Democrat Barack Obama.

Clinton, Sanders and O’Malley have each touted campaign finance reform plans designed to curb the influence of super PACs and overturn the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling.

Several of the Republican presidential contenders, on the other hand, have called for the elimination of campaign contribution limits as a way to steer more money to candidates instead of super PACs.

Alex Cohen and Chris Zubak-Skees contributed to this report.

This story is from the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit, nonpartisan investigative media organization in Washington, D.C. Read more of its investigations on the influence of money in politics or follow it on Twitter.

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