Jeb Bush Raised $100 Million, But Now He's Mad About Citizens United

If only his campaign had those $1 million checks, instead of his super PAC.
Jeb Bush's call to overturn Citizens United is not the usual reformer's cry.
Jeb Bush's call to overturn Citizens United is not the usual reformer's cry.

WASHINGTON -- Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush wants to get rid of the Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision, but it's not because he's worried about too much money in the political system.

No, he wants to let all those wealthy donors to super PACs just send their unlimited checks directly to the candidates' campaigns.

"If I could do it all again, I'd eliminate the Supreme Court ruling," Bush told CNN on Monday. "This is a ridiculous system we have now where you have campaigns that struggle to raise money directly and they can't be held accountable for the spending of the super PAC that's their affiliate."

The former Florida governor's statement might sound odd since he has likely benefited more from the Citizens United decision than any other presidential candidate. He directly raised some $100 million for his Right to Rise USA super PAC while pretending not to run for president last year. Most of that money came from donors giving well in excess of the $5,400 limit on contributions to official campaign committees -- such as Bush's once he formally acknowledged he was running in June 2015.

Once he'd announced his official candidacy, Bush was no longer able to dictate strategy to his super PAC -- although he had already helped staff the group with aides who knew his campaign strategy. Now, decisions about spending that $100-plus million rest with the man running Right to Rise USA: Mike Murphy, Bush's former aide.

"The ideal situation would be to overturn the Supreme Court ruling that allows for ... unregulated money for the independent and regulated for the campaign," Bush told a lunch crowd in Nashua, New Hampshire. "I would turn that on its head if I could."

"Turning that on its head" means a campaign finance system with no contribution limits at all. In other words, Bush would have been able to raise those six-, seven- and eight-figure checks directly for his campaign. His campaign could have raked in the $10 million contribution that C.V. Starr & Co. gave to Right to Rise USA in December.

Unlike the Republican presidential campaigns buoyed by super PACs, the two Democratic Party candidates -- Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders -- have raised large sums for their campaigns within contribution limits. They've demonstrated that it is entirely possible to raise sufficient funds under current rules.

Perhaps Bush's complaint is more a statement of regret over his choice to focus early fundraising efforts on his super PAC rather than invest time and money in collecting sufficient funds for his campaign.

There is another angle to Bush's irritation with the post-Citizens United landscape: He lamented the kind of rougher super PAC attacks for which it's hard to hold the candidates accountable. In particular, he pointed to a mailer sent out by Sen. Marco Rubio's Conservative Solutions PAC that made a veiled hit on Barbara Bush, Jeb's mother.

"I mean, I just saw a mailing that attacked me through my mother with one of the super PACs," Bush told CNN. "C'mon, man, that's a pretty low blow."

Polls show that Republicans, Democrats and independents all support overturning the Citizens United decision by wide margins. But those who back campaign finance reform generally do not like the idea of ending all campaign contribution limits.

"Republicans and Democrats alike are responding to an electorate fed up with a broken political system that too often favors wealthy special interests at the expense of everyone else," David Donnelly, president of the campaign finance reform group Every Voice, said in a statement. "Yet voters should not be fooled by Jeb Bush's support to overturn the unpopular Citizens United decision because he followed it up with a call for unlimited donations to candidates that would completely undermine any progress made by overturning Citizens United."

Donnelly suggested that Bush should instead push proposals to give ordinary Americans more of a voice in politics. "For example," Donnelly said, "he should back small-donor solutions including modernizing the presidential public financing system that both his brother and father used to get to the White House."

Donald Trump, the Bush campaign's chief antagonist, had another message:

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