How Jeb Bush is making a mockery of federal election rules

Bush brags about breaking fundraising records -- all the while pretending that he's undecided on 2016

Published May 4, 2015 2:09PM (EDT)

  (AP/Charlie Neibergall)
(AP/Charlie Neibergall)

What's Jeb Bush up to? Well he's certainly not running for president. He's just "seriously considering the possibility of running for president." The poor man probably hasn't slept in weeks, going back and forth in his head about whether he's got the fire in the belly to go through with this.

What makes this so interesting is that he's raising all sorts of money. What could that money be for? Why is his Right to Rise PAC so desperately soliciting donations for a make-believe "crucial End of Month" fundraising deadline, dedicated to "defeating Hillary"? Maybe he intends to spread that PAC money around to Marco Rubio or Scott Walker or whoever.

It could also be the case -- going out on a limb here -- that he is obviously running for president and just trying to make as much of a joke of the Federal Election Commission and America's last remaining campaign finance regulations as possible before declaring.

That's just his Right to Rise PAC, though. His Right to Rise super PAC is where the real action is happening. Behind closed doors, he is straight-up bragging to donors about how much money he has raised for... whatever mysterious thing he is plotting!

All-but-declared Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush told about 350 donors Sunday that he had set a record in Republican politics for fundraising in the first 100 days of a White House bid.

Mr. Bush’s announcement, which was met by hearty applause according to donors in the room, came on the first night of a private, two-day gathering for his top donors at an oceanfront luxury hotel. The event will include policy, political and financial briefings by Mr. Bush and his advisers.

Whenever Jeb Bush makes his presidential bid official -- which he will presumably have to do sometime before the 2016 presidential election -- he will no longer be able to coordinate with his super PAC. But as long as he maintains the public stance that he hasn't made up his mind yet, there are no rules. He can help his super PAC raise unlimited sums from donors. By the time he declares, his super PAC will likely have raised north of $100 million dollars. (Well north: Rumors are flying spreading about $500 million by the summer.)

In the 2012 cycle, super PACs were largely relegated to providing "air support" for the candidates' campaigns. Television ads, basically. Bush's plan is to "outsource" more and more traditional campaign functions to his super PAC. So what he's doing now is essentially raising unlimited sums from big donors for his presidential campaign, which is supposed to be illegal.

He's not the only one. The Wall Street Journal reported that other candidates set to declare their candidacies today, like Carly Fiorina and Ben Carson, will also be outsourcing much of their campaign work to their super PACs. The super PACs will even have their own press operations this time around. When there's a question for a candidate, should it go to the super PAC or the shell entity known as the "official campaign"?

We don't know how the press should deal with the candidates' twin campaigns. But we do know how the candidates' twin campaigns intend to deal with the press. The only problem with running a campaign through a super PAC is that the official campaign and the super PAC are not allowed to coordinate strategy. This isn't the greatest hurdle: candidates will put extremely trusted advisors in charge of super PACs, and they'll work out a battle plan before the candidate goes official. But whenever the two would like some inside information on what the other's thinking, they'll look to the press for details. Here's the head of Fiorina's super PAC directly telling the Wall Street Journal that it intends to use the Wall Street Journal as a messenger.

He suggested that Mrs. Fiorina’s campaign could learn about the PAC’s activities without the two entities coordinating privately. “I would think that if the campaign read about our approach in The Wall Street Journal then they wouldn’t want to duplicate efforts,” said Mr. DeMaura. Mrs. Fiorina’s spokeswoman, Sarah Isgur Flores, declined to comment.

First they're going to make a mockery of the FEC, and then they're going to employ horserace journalists to do the only work that the FEC forbids them from doing. At this point, why shouldn't the campaigns and super PACs just complete the joke and coordinate directly? They can have their lawyers make some funny excuse to the FEC, like how two people in the same room saying things but not looking at each other doesn't count as coordination. The Supreme Court would probably buy that, because that's how they roll.

By Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

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