Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks at a Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce luncheon in Winnipeg, Manitoba, on Jan. 21, 2015.
Photo by John Woods/The Canadian Press/AP

FEC gives blessing to Hillary Clinton shadow campaign

The work of Hillary Clinton’s shadow campaign may be unprecedented, but it’s not illegal, according to a new ruling from the Federal Election Commission.

The FEC has cleared both Hillary Clinton and the pro-Clinton super PAC Ready for Hillary of alleged wrongdoing, depriving Republicans of one line of attack and giving at least some official blessing to a novel approach that could serve as a model for future campaigns.

The case arose from a complaint filed by the anti-Clinton group Stop Hillary PAC, which argued that Clinton and Ready for Hillary violated campaign finance laws when the super PAC rented an email list belonging to Clinton’s dormant Senate campaign last year.

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The Stop Hillary PAC group argued that when Clinton approved the list rental, she was essentially acknowledging that she’s running for president and thus should formally declare her candidacy and name Ready for Hillary as her official campaign committee.

Responding to the allegation, the FEC found “there is no reason to believe” that Clinton nor Ready for Hillary violated the law. “Accordingly, the commission closed its file in the matter,” a top FEC lawyer wrote to the pro- and anti-Clinton super PACs, as first reported by the National Law Journal.

“We are pleased with the FEC’s confirmation that Ready for Hillary’s rental and use of the list was in full compliance with the law,” Ready for Hillary general counsel Jim Lamb told msnbc in a statement.

Stop Hillary PAC, which had sued the FEC for taking too long to respond to their request, is happy they simply got a response. “My client, Stop Hillary PAC, is thrilled that filing a federal lawsuit against the FEC forced them to stop covering up for Hillary,” Dan Backer, the group’s lawyer, said in an email.

Republicans have for months raised legal questions about the group, often referred to Ready for Hillary as Clinton’s “shadow campaign.” This ruling, while narrowly on the rental of an email list, appears to pour cold water on that line of attack, at least for the moment.

Still, Katie Packer Gage, a Republican strategist who served as Mitt Romney’s deputy campaign manager, said the real legal issue will come later, when Ready for Hillary attempts to transfer the fruits of more than two years of labor to an official Clinton campaign. “Right now there is no violation because she isn’t a candidate. So they can do whatever they want,” she said in an email. “But there will be lots of questions when she does become one.”

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More broadly, this first of its kind ruling could be seen as blessing from the FEC of the novel approach taken by Ready for Hillary in laying the groundwork for a presidential campaign years out from its official start. The super PAC has been building a list of Clinton supporters, holding events to heighten enthusiasm across the country, and securing endorsements from elected Democrats since early 2013.

It’s at least part of the reason for Clinton’s dominance today. But at the same time, the FEC complaint is another example of why some Clinton insiders were wary of the group, since they would prefer to avoid the appearance of potential wrongdoing, even if the allegations went nowhere. 

Ready for Hillary would not have been possible before the Supreme Court’s controversial Citizens United ruling, and strategists and campaign finance watchdogs have wondered if it will become a model for presidential candidates in the future. The ruling may help encourage that, even for candidates with less stature than Clinton who could benefit from the early creation of a list of supporters.

“Will everybody do it? I don’t know,” Ready for Hillary senior adviser Craig Smith said at a meeting of group’s donor last fall. “I think it’s a smart thing.”

Hillary Clinton and Ready for Hillary

FEC gives blessing to Hillary Clinton shadow campaign