Why Clinton's Fundraising Prowess Cuts Both Ways

AP Photo/Cheryl Senter

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton at the NHDP annual Jefferson Jackson dinner in Manchester, New Hampshire, Sunday, November 29, 2015. 

For Democrats, Hillary Clinton’s talent for collecting super-sized campaign checks is reason both to celebrate and agonize.

On the one hand, Clinton’s high-dollar fundraising for the Democratic National Committee and 32 state party committees helps blunt Republicans’ substantial big-money advantage. Republicans have exploited new political party fundraising loopholes much more aggressively than Democrats, and Clinton’s September joint fundraising agreement with Democratic Party committees helps even the scales.

But Clinton’s Midas touch with big donors also poses substantial dangers, both to her campaign and to Democrats in 2016. As six-figure checks roll in to the Hillary Victory Fund—a so-called joint fundraising committee that will divvy up receipts among Clinton’s presidential campaign, the DNC, and state parties from Alaska to Wyoming, Clinton will face fresh scrutiny over her ties to Wall Street and to moneyed interests.

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders threw Clinton on the defensive during last month’s Democratic debate in Iowa when he declared: “I’m not asking Wall Street or the billionaires for money.” Clinton’s feeble defense that she had rallied behind New York and Wall Street after the 9/11 terrorist attacks fell flat, while Sanders’s social media following soared.

Republicans have long since set out to paint Clinton as untrustworthy, and are poised to make hay out of the $3 billion that she and her husband, former president Bill Clinton, collected over four decades in public life together. Clinton is sure to face more uncomfortable questions about the donors who gave millions to the Clinton Foundation who also had issues before her when she was secretary of state.

The Clintons and their vexed fundraising history, which included Lincoln Bedroom sleepovers during the height of soft-money scandals of the 1990s, will be atop many minds as Bill Clinton embarks on a nationwide fundraising tour for his wife this month. The former president’s first stop will be a star-studded New York City dinner on December 17 for the Hillary Victory Fund that will feature rock star Sting, and donations starting at $33,400 and maxing out at $100,000 for couples who help chair the event.

The former president also plans more than a dozen fundraising events in California, Pennsylvania, Texas, and around the country to raise money for his wife between now and the end of the year. Some will feature such Democratic powerbrokers of yesteryear as super-lawyer and ex-Bill Clinton adviser Vernon Jordan, and Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe, who chaired the Democratic National Committee during the height of his party’s soft-money abuses.

All this will be catnip to Hillary Clinton’s opponents on both sides of the aisle. To be sure, Republicans have their own political money image problems, given the hundreds of millions that will be spent in 2016 by the billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch, and by such billionaire GOP super PAC donors as casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and New York hedge fund operator Paul Singer.

The former secretary of state has moved to deflect criticism with a sweeping campaign-finance overhaul, which she calls the “democracy revitalization” pillar of her platform. The plan would require full disclosure of donations, match small donations with public funding, and overturn the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United v. FEC ruling that deregulated independent political spending.

Progressive activists have praised the plan, but also complain that Clinton has failed to promote campaign-finance reform as robustly as she should. Polls show that voters on both sides of the aisle are increasingly angry over the role of moneyed interests in elections. Democrats cannot take for granted that voters will give them the benefit of the doubt when it comes to campaign financing, says Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg.

“I think this will be a major point of difference between Democrats and Republicans, but [the Democrats] have to own it,” says Greenberg. The more Clinton talks about the need to overhaul the campaign-finance system, he adds, “the better she will do.”

Clinton’s credibility as a genuine reform advocate will be put to the test as the Hillary Victory Fund swings into full gear. As a joint fundraising committee, the Hillary Victory Fund is operating under newly-relaxed rules, thanks both to campaign-finance changes inserted into an omnibus spending bill late last year, and to last year’s Supreme Court ruling in McCutcheon v. FEC that overturned aggregate campaign contribution limits.

Under the new rules, the Hillary Victory Fund is free to collect as much as $660,000 a pop from an individual donor, or $1.3 million in an election cycle. So far no donor has given quite that much to Clinton’s joint account, but contributors will soon bump against that limit. The Hillary Victory Fund has already raised $3.2 million since its September launch, and has given $600,000 to the Democratic National Committee, public records show.

Top donors to the joint committee this year include Newsweb Corp. CEO Fred Eychaner and J.B. Pritzker, managing partner of the investment firm the Pritzker Group, who each have given more than $300,000. Other six-figure donors to the Hillary Victory Fund include California entrepreneur Susie Tompkins Buell and Amy Rao, CEO of the technology firm Integrated Archive Systems.

As she continues to fend off questions about her Wall Street ties, Clinton has touted her support from small donors and her plans to rein in big banks and investors. But the more super-sized checks Clinton pulls in, the more scrutiny her fundraising will attract. To satisfy restive Democratic voters, she will need to come up with a more plausible show of her willingness to bite the hands that feed her.

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