Hillary Clinton is directly helping a super PAC supporting her presidential candidacy, two sources confirmed to msnbc, potentially complicating her message of reforming money in politics.
Clinton held a meeting Wednesday in San Francisco and will have another one Thursday in Los Angeles with donors to Priorities USA, the main super PAC that supported President Obama’s re-election bid and is now backing Clinton.
Clinton was already in California this week for an official campaign fundraising swing, ahead of what is expected to be the most expensive election in American history.
Priorities USA is run by longtime Obama and Clinton advisers, and has had Clinton’s apparent tacit blessing. But some donors being asked to write multi-million-dollar checks had been waiting for a more clear endorsement from Clinton herself.
The news of Clinton’s involvement with the super PAC, first reported by The New York Times, could muddle Clinton’s strong message on money in politics.
"I'm sorry to see Hillary Clinton join Jeb Bush and other presidential candidates in a race to the ethical bottom. This all but assures that our next president is bought and paid for by a handful of billionaires," campaign finance watchdog Paul S. Ryan of the Campaign Legal Center told msnbc. "Super PAC fundraising by Clinton will fly in the face of her professed commitment to cleaning up the corrupting role of big money in politics."
The Democratic presidential candidate has made campaign finance reform central to the “four big fights” of her campaign. She used her very first campaign stop, in Iowa last month, to announce that she would support a constitutional amendment to roll back Citizens United, the Supreme Court decision that paved the way for super PACs like Priorities USA.
"Hillary Clinton's decision to solicit super PAC contributions makes it all the more important for her to offer a bold, detailed plan to to address the public's belief that our elections are for sale to the highest bidder. Vague platitudes are no longer enough," said David Donnelly, president and CEO of the campaign finance reform group Every Voice.
Clinton's defenders acknowledge that her involvement is not ideal, but they say her endorsement of the group is consistent with her broader message on campaign finance and that she cannot be expected to relinquish a powerful tool her Republican opponents will use aggressively.
Clinton has called for getting “unaccountable money” out of politics, but super PACs are required to disclose all their donors and spending. She was referring to other groups like the Karl Rove-backed Crossroads GPS, which are set up as non-profits under the tax code. Those “dark money groups” are allowed to shield all their donors and much of their political activity from the public.
And while super PACs are legally prohibited from coordinating with candidates, prospective candidates like Jeb Bush are actively running their own super PACs until they formally declare presidential bids. That has led some campaign finance watchdogs to accuse the politicians of breaking the law. Clinton’s campaign decided against this path ahead of her announcement.
Candidates can appear at super PAC fundraisers without running afoul of coordination laws as long they are not present when donors are actually asked to pony up checks.
If Clinton does not work within the current campaign finance system, her defenders say, Democrats will lose. And if Democrats lose, they can’t amend the Constitution or remake Supreme Court to roll back Citizens United, and the system will not be fixed.
In private meetings with donors across the country, including some who fund the kinds of groups Clinton wants to reign in, she does not shy away from calling for reform. In fact, one of the most popular parts of Clinton's pitch to donors is her call for a constitutional amendment to end unaccountable money in politics, a source who has been inside the room during these meetings told msnbc.
It’s a similar conundrum to the one Obama faced at the start of his re-election bid in 2012, the first presidential year to feature super PACs. Obama at first resisted endorsing Priorities USA, which faced skepticism and even hostility from Democratic donors.
Eventually, the president blessed the group and even appeared at some of its fundraisers. Priorities USA went on to raise nearly $80 million and spent it all on devastating ads attacking Mitt Romney’s tenure at venture capital firm Bain Capital.
This year, the super PAC is hoping an earlier start and more buy-in will help it dramatically outdo 2012, with goals of raising at least $200 million. Nothing will help the group reach that goal more than cooperation from the candidate herself.
Story updated with quotes from Ryan and Donnelly.