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Trump’s latest target: Super PACs and rich political donors

Rick Newman
Senior Columnist

The ties between Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are getting stronger.

Trump, the renowned Republican party-crasher, has fired a new broadside at super PACs, the big-money groups channeling hundreds of millions of dollars into the 2016 presidential elections. Trump called on all presidential candidates to break ranks with super PACs supporting them and insist they return all donations. To set an example, Trump’s lawyers sent letters to seven super PACs purportedly backing the renegade candidate, telling each of them, “your organization is not authorized to use Mr. Trump’s name and likeness in connection with its fundraising activites…. We are formally disavowing such activities.”

Of the 17 major presidential candidates still in the race, most are aligned with at least one super PAC able to raise unlimited amounts from wealthy donors and spend it on certain activities supporting their favored candidate. The one other candidate opposed to super PACs is the leftist Democrat Bernie Sanders, who says the gusher of money flowing into politics is “undermining American democracy.”

Trump and Sanders have became strange bedfellows in other ways. They’re both entertaining political outsiders from New York (who tend to pronounce “huge” with a silent h), but there are policy similarities as well. Each supports some form of government-sponsored healthcare system that will cover everybody, for instance, while opposing recent free-trade deals. And both have hit a nerve with voters disgusted at the petty antics of traditional inside-the-Beltway politics.

Raging against super PACs fits well with Trump’s populist appeal. Super PACs mainly benefit politicians with the richest friends, because unlike traditional campaigns committees, they’re allowed to raise unlimited amounts of money to spend on ads and other things that benefit a candidate. Jeb Bush’s super PAC, Right to Rise, has raised at least $103 million so far, which is four times as much money as his campaign headquarters, for example -- a sign of just how crucial such outside-spending groups have become. Hillary Clinton’s main super PAC has raised around $40 million, which is slightly less than the funding so far for Clinton’s campaign committee.

There’s one problem with Trump’s crusade against super PACs, however: It doesn’t explain how candidates without a built-in funding base -- or many millions of their own -- are supposed to mount an effective campaign. Trump repeatedly points out that he can’t be influenced by special interests because he’s a billionaire funding his own campaign. That’s great for Trump, and his supporters don’t seem to find it discordant for a billionaire to be running as a hero of the little guy.

Yet candidates without a built-in funding source are at a huge disadvantage against opponents with money, whether it comes from a private bank account, wealthy donors or some other source. Sanders has so far pulled off a rare stunt in American politics, raising an impressive $42 million from a uge (sorry, huge) volume of small donors making two-, three- or low four-digit contributions. It helps that Sanders is a U.S. senator, giving him a pretty visible platform to start with. Most other upstart candidates starve for lack of funding and promptly disappear, barely even remembered.

While many analysts decry the corrosive role of rich donors in modern politics, a system in which only billionaires could afford to run wouldn’t be much better. A better system, many reformers say, would be one in which the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court ruling were overturned, imposing new caps on donations. Or, there could also be limits on the total amount of money spent on behalf of any candidate, without regard to individual donations, or public funding that somehow evens out the spending for every candidate able to reach a minimum level of support among voters. But that’s for late next year, once the elections are over. Maybe long after that.

Rick Newman’s latest book is Liberty for All: A Manifesto for Reclaiming Financial and Political Freedom. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.