The 10 candidates on stage at the prime-time Republican debate Thursday have raised tens of millions of dollars among them. But seven have been outraised by outside groups supporting their bids -- except neurosurgeon Ben Carson, Sen. Rand Paul, and developer Donald Trump.
Two-thirds or more of the funds for the seven candidates went to outside groups like super PACs that are not subject to the same contribution limits as the candidates.
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Super PACs can accept unlimited donations because they are deemed independent of candidates. But this election is testing the efficacy of that rule like never before. That's because 96 percent of the outside money was raised by groups with ties to candidates, such as being run by a candidate's former campaign manager or having the candidate headline fundraising events. A new Brennan Center for Justice report found these shadow campaigns raised a record $273 million through June. Sporting ties with the candidate seems to be the best way for the groups to get big donations. All 10 of the groups that raised $10 million or more have reported links to candidates. Groups that are reportedly run by a candidate's former staff raised $213 million.
Overall, the shadow campaigns have raised more than twice as much as the candidates themselves. Most of the presidential candidates -- 12 out of 21 -- were outraised by groups connected to them. Some shadow campaigns have collected about 10 times more than their favored candidates, like those supporting former Gov. Jeb Bush, which raised $108.5 million to his campaign's $11.4 million, or former Gov. Rick Perry, whose own committee's $1.1 million was dwarfed by the shadow campaign's $13.8 million.
Democrats have been slower to take advantage of the new trend. Altogether, GOP shadow campaigns have raised 12 times more than their Democratic counterparts. In addition to Bush, the biggest beneficiaries on the Republican side are Sen. Ted Cruz, with $38.3 million raised by shadow campaigns, and Gov. Scott Walker, who saw outside groups tied to him raise $26.2 million before he officially declared his candidacy. The fundraising powerhouse on the Democratic side is former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, whose campaign committee secured $47.5 million, well over twice as much as the shadow campaigns supporting her.
When the Supreme Court opened the floodgates for outside donations in its Citizens United decision, many worried the result would be a free-for-all, with candidates drowned out by independent spending. But in the second presidential election since the decision, there are opportunities for candidates to exert control over the vast amounts of outside money raised by groups.
When outside money isn't actually independent, it makes a mockery of caps on donations to candidates, which are meant to protect against the corruption of elected officials and ensure that viable candidates have a broad base of support. Without limits, candidates could raise all their money from a small class of wealthy donors.
Congress and the Federal Election Commission can help address the problem by creating stricter rules to limit the ways candidates and outside groups may coordinate. And ultimately, the Supreme Court must reverse course and stop twisting the Constitution into a shield for big money seeking to control politics. Citizens United and other decisions should be overturned to allow reasonable regulation of the use of wealth to influence elections.
Ian Vandewalker serves as counsel in the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law.