Some 2020 Democrats are getting help from big money super PACs, even if they don’t want it

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Sen. Cory Booker (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Just a handful of wealthy donors are providing some 2020 Democrats with financial support in the form of powerful super PACs, the unlimited spending groups that have drawn ire from Democrats eyeing the nomination. 

Three well-funded super PACs have emerged to back their preferred Democratic presidential hopefuls, with Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper the beneficiaries.

The super PACs have raised a combined $3.8 million from just 21 donors, arriving as Democrats increasingly assail big money and the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United v. FEC that led to the creation of unlimited-spending independent groups.

Of the three, the Inslee-supporting Act Now on Climate is the only group to spend major money on independent expenditures so far. The group, which raised $2.1 million from eight donors through the first half of the year, has already spent $1.6 million on ads boosting Inslee’s bid. 

The group received $1 million from Rose Letwin, a Washington environmental activist and wife of Gordon Letwin, one of the 11 original Microsoft employees. David and Linda Cornfield, Seattle philanthropists who have funded environmental-focused films, contributed a combined $300,000. Three more Washington donors, including Zumiez founder Thomas Campion, chipped in $250,000 each.

Inslee has said he welcomed support from the super PAC, given that his campaign is focused on aggressively combating climate change. 

“They want to defeat climate change, and this is something I’ve been very passionate about for decades,” Inslee told the Associated Press. “So, no, I won’t be condemning any organization that’s trying to defeat climate change.”

But the group’s ads, which aired during the July Democratic debates, operated much like those from a typical single-candidate super PAC, directly attacking Inslee’s primary opponents for not making climate change a top priority. 

The pro-Booker Dream United, a super PAC founded by one of Booker’s Stanford classmates, has reported spending only $9,960 supporting Booker so far. But with a $1.1 million fundraising haul from just three donors, the group has plenty of money to play with.

San Francisco philanthropist and Democratic activist Susan Sandler accounted for $1 million of the super PAC’s total haul. New York investor Ravenel B. Curry gave $100,000 and Kirkland & Ellis attorney Eunu Chun gave $25,000. 

Booker echoed many of his fellow 2020 Democrats when he told supporters he would reject support from super PACs. But Dream United’s founder, civil rights lawyer Steve Phillips, said he would recruit donors to support Booker’s bid anyway. 

Super PACs are supposed to be independent groups acting separately from candidate committees, so Democratic presidential contenders can’t shut them down regardless of whether they oppose them. The lack of control over outside spending leaves the candidates’ no-super PAC pledges with little sway. 

Still, mountains of evidence suggest the most powerful super PACs are not independent whatsoever, but rather arms of the major parties and major candidates. Each of the top four biggest spending super PACs in last year’s midterms are directly tied to members of leadership in their respective parties. 

Likewise, the pro-Hickenlooper super PAC appears to have at least some connection with the campaign. The New York Times reported that Hickenlooper’s campaign manager was originally involved with Shared Purpose, which raised $575,000 from 10 donors through the first half of the year.

Several of the group’s top donors are executives at Colorado media firm Liberty Media, where Hickenlooper’s wife, Robin Pringle Hickenlooper, works as senior vice president of corporate development. Liberty Media CEO Greg Maffei gave $100,000 as did Michael Fries, CEO of the company’s London-based parent company Liberty Global.

Billionaire Christy Walton, one of the heirs to the Walmart fortune and one of the richest Americans, was the group’s top donor, contributing $200,000. Walton gives to both parties and to the Libertarian party. Her biggest single contribution was $250,000 to a super PAC in support of 2016 Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson. 

Shared Purpose hasn’t made independent expenditures so far and wasn’t revealed until it filed with the Federal Election Committee Wednesday. 

These super PACs might not have enough money to shake the foundation of the presidential race, but their sources of income are at odds with most 2020 Democrats’ fundraising focus on attracting small donors and rejecting big money. 

Democrats blasted the 5-4 Citizens United ruling in 2010 and continue to push for a constitutional amendment to overturn the decision, but the party’s opposition hasn’t stopped it from using super PACs and “dark money” groups to win elections. Democrats have argued they cannot compete with Republicans without fighting fire with fire. 

Excluding party committees, liberal outside groups spent more money — $523 million to $515 million — than their conservative counterparts during the 2018 midterms. That marked the first time Democrats received more outside support than Republicans since Citizens United.

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