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17 Months Before Election Day, One Campaign Aims For $100 Million

"Exploratory" Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush speaks April 17 at the First in the Nation Republican Leadership Conference in Nashua, N.H. His super PAC — Right to Rise — is aiming to raise $100 million dollars by June 1.
Brian Snyder
"Exploratory" Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush speaks April 17 at the First in the Nation Republican Leadership Conference in Nashua, N.H. His super PAC — Right to Rise — is aiming to raise $100 million dollars by June 1.

The price tag for the most expensive penthouses in Manhattan is just edging past $100 million. That's also the size of contributions given by conservative businessman David Koch and Hollywood mogul David Geffen to Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, where each philanthropist got naming rights for a building.

And $100 million is what political advisers to Republican Jeb Bush expect to have by June 1 in the bank accounts of Right To Rise SuperPAC — the unlimited-contributions committee designed to help him win the White House.

Much of that money has been raised by Bush himself since January, in a full schedule of private dinners with millionaires and billionaires.

The former governor of Florida has depicted this as ordinary politics. Before a closed-door session with superPAC donors in Miami Beach, he told reporters: "So the campaign finance laws are — they are what they are, and the campaigns are gonna have to play within those rules."

That's hardly going to be a stringent standard, says Sheila Krumholz, director of the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.

"Gov. Bush says they'll play within the rules — great," she says. "But the rules are — as they're currently interpreted, by his and other campaigns — have been practically rendered meaningless. This is a radical shift in thinking about what campaigns can and cannot do."

There are two elements that Krumholz sees as radical.

First, Bush has not declared himself a presidential candidate, and many of the other White House hopefuls are playing it the same way.

That enables him legally to do that heavy-lifting fundraising for Right to Rise SuperPAC. As an official candidate, Jeb Bush only could solicit contributions of $2,700 per donor — the same as the maximum contribution to Bush's official presidential campaign committee for the primary season. But because Bush is not a candidate, there's no official campaign committee — and the rules don't apply.

The second radical development is that, while superPACs are not allowed to coordinate messages with the candidate's campaign committee, there's speculation that some campaigns — Bush's in particular — might outsource the entire, expensive job of running TV advertising to a designated superPAC.

Dan Backer, a conservative campaign finance lawyer, said in an interview that the role of superPACs is being exaggerated.

"They probably have relationships with the candidates that they're ultimately going to support," he said. "But they are distinct legal entities — and very intentionally so."

While Backer acknowledged that presidential superPACs are "pushing the envelope," he said, "I'm a very firm believer that these organizational formalities are going to be very sternly respected — because there isn't an interest in being the poster boy for scandal."

But that poster boy is going to appear sooner or later, said Michael Malbin, director of the Campaign Finance Institute, a nonpartisan research organization. Contribution limits and other rules are crumbling, he says, as superPACs and other unlimited-money groups get cozier with federal candidates and elected officials.

Malbin's conclusion: "We know that this kind of relationship between donors and candidates and their surrogates, eventually is going to create situations where candidates start extracting and extorting large amounts of money."

He cited the three eras when presidential candidates were able to solicit unlimited campaign cash: The 1890s and 1900s, when advisers to presidents William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt pressured corporations — especially insurance companies — to give; the early 1970s, when President Richard Nixon and aides traded official decisions for political funds; and the "soft money" period of the 1990s, when President Bill Clinton and senators of both parties made Washington a partner to corporations and billionaires.

Malbin noted that each era closed with the enactment of new laws regulating political money.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Peter Overby has covered Washington power, money, and influence since a foresighted NPR editor created the beat in 1994.