Two powerful organizations within the Democratic establishment announced steps Friday that have the potential to provide substantial financial firepower to presidential contender Hillary Clinton by drawing on the support of wealthy donors and corporate interests.
While providing a likely boost to Clinton, both developments also give rival Bernie Sanders fresh fodder to highlight her relationship with Wall Street and other special interests at a time when the two candidates are locked in an intense nomination fight.
Priorities USA Action, the main super PAC supporting Clinton, unleashed a $5 million infusion of spending on her behalf, upending plans to hold its fire until the general election. The move calls attention to growing concern within the party’s leadership that her campaign may be in trouble, and it underscores how crucial several upcoming contests have become in Clinton’s battle with Sanders, a senator from Vermont.
In addition, the Democratic National Committee announced that it had rolled back restrictions introduced by presidential candidate Barack Obama in 2008 that banned donations from federal lobbyists and political action committees.
Both actions offer the potential for financial benefit for Clinton. But both also could backfire.
Sanders has gained traction with his core argument that special interests have “rigged” the economy against the lower and middle classes. Although Clinton has repeatedly denied that she has been influenced by donations or speaking fees from Wall Street, the likely new flow of money to her campaign could add grist to Sanders’s case.
As if to prove the point, the Sanders campaign issued a news release Friday with this headline: “Clinton Wall Street-Funded Super PAC Enters Democratic Primary Against Sanders.” And later in the day, Sanders’s campaign communications director, Michael Briggs, called the DNC decision “an unfortunate step backward. We support the restrictions that President Obama put in place at the DNC, and we hope Secretary Clinton will join us in supporting the president.”
Sanders has received the vast majority of his funding through online, small-dollar donations. He has said regularly on the campaign trail that the average donation to his campaign is $27.
Although Clinton carried a financial advantage for most of the campaign, Sanders has outpaced her in fundraising since the year began.
During Thursday night’s PBS debate in Milwaukee, Clinton attempted to distance herself from Priorities USA and the donations it has received from Wall Street players, noting that the group was first started to support Obama’s reelection. “It’s not my PAC,” she said.
The early engagement by Priorities marks the first major infusion of super PAC money on Clinton’s behalf. The independent committee is spearheading a $4.5 million push to drive early turnout of African Americans, Latinos and women in March primary states. The effort is in partnership with the League of Conservation Voters, an environmental advocacy organization, and Emily’s List, which works to elect Democratic women.
Separately, the super PAC is spending $500,000 to launch a radio ad campaign in South Carolina beginning Friday, casting Clinton as the candidate to build on Obama’s legacy.
Guy Cecil, chief strategist for Priorities, said the new ads will solely focus on positive messages about Clinton. He described the early-vote campaign as an effort that will also pay dividends this fall if she is the Democratic nominee.
“It’s very clear for us that both in the primary and the general election, women, African American and Latino voters are an important part of the Clinton coalition,” Cecil said.
The DNC’s decision, meanwhile, was made months ago but announced Friday. It allows the party to collect money from lobbyists and PACs in preparation for the general election, a move that would benefit Clinton if she were the nominee. Sanders has condemned the decision and called on the DNC to reverse it.
The 2008 lobbyist ban was a symbolic way for Obama to put his stamp on the party during a campaign in which he promised voters that “we are going to change how Washington works.”
At the time, lobbyists and corporate advocates in Washington complained about the ban and other limitations imposed by the new administration. The only portion of the ban now remaining in place is a rule that lobbyists and PAC representatives cannot attend events that feature Obama, Vice President Biden or their spouses, according to Mark Paustenbach, deputy communications director for the DNC.
“The DNC’s recent change in guidelines will ensure that we continue to have the resources and infrastructure in place to best support whoever emerges as our eventual nominee,” Paustenbach said in an email. “Electing a Democrat to the White House is vital to building on the progress we’ve made over the last seven years, which has resulted in a record 71 straight months of private-sector job growth and nearly 14 million new jobs.”
The decision allows lobbyists and PACs to contribute to the Hillary Victory Fund, a joint fundraising committee between the Clinton campaign and the party that raised $26.7 million through the end of 2015. Sanders has set up a similar joint fundraising committee, but Federal Election Commission records show that it has not been active, raising just $1,000.
Campaign finance reform advocates decried the new DNC policy of accepting money from lobbyists, suggesting that it is a relaxation of ethical standards in place since 2008 and citing contributions already provided to the Hillary Victory Fund.
“It is a major step in the wrong direction,” said longtime reform advocate Fred Wertheimer. “And it is completely out of touch with the clear public rejection of the role of political money in Washington” expressed during the 2016 campaign. The new rules are already providing opportunities for “influence-buying,” he said, noting “six-figure contributions to the Hillary Victory Fund.”
Wertheimer called on Obama on Friday to reverse the DNC’s decision. White House deputy press secretary Eric Schultz said a new set of party leaders will have to make such decisions.
Clinton spokesman Josh Schwerin emphasized the grass-roots nature of her campaign and the candidate’s commitment to campaign finance reform. In an emailed statement Friday, he said that the Clinton campaign “is driven by the 750,000 people across the country who have contributed, mostly with low dollar donations. Hillary Clinton has fought for campaign finance reform her entire career and, as President, will make it a priority to overturn Citizens United and restore the role of everyday voters in elections.”
The DNC’s recent decision to lift the ban on donations from lobbyists and political action committees was confirmed by three Democratic lobbyists who said they had already received solicitations from the committee. The lobbyists spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk freely about the committee’s decision, which has been otherwise kept quiet.
For the most part, they said, the DNC has returned to business as usual, pre-2008. It has even named a finance director for PAC donations, who recently emailed prospective donors to let them know that they can contribute again, according to an email that was reviewed by The Washington Post.
While Clinton has many small donors, her campaign, her supporting super PACs and the Hillary Victory Fund also draw from wealthy interests.
Several of her biggest backers have given the maximum to the Hillary Victory Fund and also contributed to her allied super PACs. Among them are investor and philanthropist George Soros, who has given $7 million to Priorities USA, $343,400 to the Hillary Victory Fund and the maximum $2,700 for her primary election campaign. Other donors who gave to all three Clinton-related entities include Haim Saban, the head of Univision, and his wife, Cheryl, who together gave $5 million to the super PAC and $696,800 to the joint committee.
Hedge fund manager Donald Sussman has given $2.5 million to the super PAC so far and $343,400 to the Hillary Victory Fund.
Sanders, who decried the DNC decision to accept lobbying money Friday, has set up a similar joint fundraising committee, but records show that it has not been active, raising a total of just $1,000.
In recent months Sanders’s supporters have accused the DNC of trying to prevent more primary debates, in an attempt to tilt the race in Clinton’s direction. Just this week, his backers were enraged that the DNC allowed the senior members of the Congressional Black Caucus to use the committee’s Capitol Hill headquarters to announce that their PAC had endorsed Clinton over Sanders.
DNC officials have said they had no involvement in the black caucus event. As a dues-paying member of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the caucus can reserve shared meeting space at the DNC.
David Nakamura and Anu Narayanswamy contributed to this report.