\Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker shakes hands with people following a grassroots training and rally event at Concord High School March 14, 2015 in Concord, N.H.
Photo by Darren McCollester/Getty

Watchdog: Top 2016ers may be violating campaign finance law

Updated

A good government group has accused four likely 2016 contenders of flouting campaign finance laws by actively running for president while denying they’re doing so—allowing them to evade the stricter rules for raising and spending money that apply to candidates.

“These 2016 presidential contenders must take the American people for fools.”
Paul Ryan, CLC senior counsel
Republicans Scott Walker, Jeb Bush and Rick Santorum, and Democrat Martin O’Malley, are all breaking the rules, alleges a complaint filed Tuesday with the Federal Election Commission (FEC) by the Campaign Legal Center (CLC), a respected campaign finance watchdog founded in part by Republican Sen. John McCain.

The complaint isn’t likely to lead to much, given the FEC’s unwillingness to enforce campaign finance laws. And that reality only underscores how sophisticated political organizations have found ways to run roughshod over the rules governing money in politics.

Candidates for federal office have to abide by fundraising limits, which means individual donors can’t give more than $2,700, among other restrictions. Crucially, many of those limits also apply to potential candidates who are deemed to be “testing the waters”—so avoiding a formal campaign announcement doesn’t get you off the hook.

The CLC complaint charges that the four non-candidates are doing things that clearly count as “testing the waters.” They’re hiring staff, appearing at events in states that hold early primaries and caucuses—and of course, raising money.

Bush and Walker have been particularly active on the money front. The former Florida governor has launched a leadership PAC and a Super PAC, both known as Right to Rise. And Walker, the governor of Wisconsin, has created a political committee, Our American Revival.

One of Bush’s PACs sent an email under the name of his mother, Barbara Bush. “Jeb is our best chance of taking back the White House in 2016, and I hope that you will join me in pushing him to run,” the former first lady wrote.

“These 2016 presidential contenders must take the American people for fools—flying repeatedly to Iowa and New Hampshire to meet with party leaders and voters, hiring campaign staff, and raising millions of dollars from deep-pocketed mega donors, all the while denying that they are even ‘testing the waters’ of a presidential campaign,” Paul Ryan, a CLC senior counsel, said in a statement. “But federal campaign finance law is no joke and the candidate contribution limits kick in as soon as a person begins raising and spending money to determine whether they’re going to run for office. Bush, O’Malley, Santorum and Walker appear to be violating federal law.”

As The Guardian and the Center for Responsive Politics jointly reported Monday, some of them—as well as other 2016 hopefuls not named in the complaint—have even slipped up when talking in public, making statements that make clear they’re running.

“Bush, O’Malley, Santorum and Walker appear to be violating federal law.”
Paul Ryan, CLC senior counsel
“I remember the last campaign—well, not that we’re in a campaign,” Santorum said in Iowa recently. “The FEC is watching.”

“If I go beyond the consideration of the possibility of running, which is the legal terminology that many of the people here coming to CPAC are probably using to not trigger a campaign …” Bush explained at the Conservative Political Action Conference in February.

When he announced his potential interest in running in a December statement, Bush said he would “actively explore the possibility” of a campaign—awkward phrasing that appears designed to avoid triggering the formal “testing the waters” phase.

And Rand Paul said at South by Southwest: “I’m the only candidate who thinks that the NSA program on bulk collection of your phone records should be shut down.” That led to a tweet from his staff saying he was talking about his status as a candidate for re-election to the U.S. Senate.

It’s not surprising that these non-candidates might get careless. In recent years—and especially since the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling—the FEC has been hamstrung by a consistent unwillingness on the part of its Republican-appointed commissioners to enforce campaign finance laws. 

Campaign Finance, Jeb Bush, Martin O'Malley, Rand Paul, Rick Santorum and Scott Walker

Watchdog: Top 2016ers may be violating campaign finance law

Updated