Sen. Kamala D. Harris on Sunday formally kicked off her presidential campaign with a rally in Oakland, adding to the growing field of would-be 2020 Democratic Party nominees another candidate who has pledged to disavow “super PAC activity.”
The California Democrat joins Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, and Julian Castro, a former Obama cabinet official, in heeding Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s demand that the field of 2020 Democratic contenders rule out super PACs and focus on running grass-roots powered campaigns fueled by small-dollar donations.
“She isn’t taking corporate PAC money and rejects super PAC activity,” said Ian Sams, a Harris campaign spokesman.
It remains to be seen whether Ms. Harris will be joined by others, including Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, who has yet to announce his expected bid, but already has a donor raising millions of dollars for a supportive super PAC, according to a recent report in The New York Times.
The field of contenders is going to have to weigh the risk versus reward of eschewing super PACs, which, unlike individual donors that are capped out at $2,700 in contributions in the primary, can raise unlimited sums of money but cannot coordinate with a candidate.
Ms. Warren, who is actively exploring a bid, laid down a marker this month, saying on MSNBC’s “Rachel Maddow” show that Democrats should say, “no to the billionaires — whether they are self-funding or whether they’re funding [super] PACs.”
Some have been unmoved.
Rep. John Delaney of Maryland, who launched his long-shot bid last year, has signaled he will tap into his personal wealth and is open to super PAC support. Odds are that former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, a pair of billionaires flirting with bids, also would self-fund if they enter the race as Democrats.
When it comes to PACs, though, liberal activists are keeping score by using whether a candidate takes a stand against outside money as a litmus test.
“It is a great challenge that would purify the Democratic Party brand and make it clear we are not the party of big money,” said Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which is all-in for Ms. Warren.
Mr. Green said candidates should demand that supportive super PACs cease operations.
Democracy for America’s Neil Sroka said candidates would be better off without the well-funded groups that have become a symbol, in the eyes of liberal activists, of everything that is wrong with politics.
“A presidential candidate having a super PAC pushing them in the 2020 race I think is going to be a bigger liability than a lot of people might appreciate because of the disgust the Democratic base has with money in politics and the control that the wealthy try to have through super PACs,” Mr. Sroka said. “This is the kind of the thing where a wink and a nod is not going to work.”
The 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court ruling opened the door for corporations, nonprofit groups, and unions to spend whatever they wanted on super PACs, which have tested the spirit of the law in recent elections.
In 2016, several candidates, including then-Govs. John Kasich of Ohio and Jeb Bush of Florida, recorded video footage for supportive super PACs that was later used in ads after they officially launched their respective presidential campaigns.
Donors plowed more than $1.7 billion into super PACs that election cycle and spent more than $1 billion, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
The pro-Hillary Clinton Priorities USA Action led the pack that year, investing $133 million, followed by the Right to Rise group that spent $87 million on behalf of Mr. Bush. The three top pro-Trump groups spent a combined $58 million.
Two years later, super PACs dumped $808 million into the midterm elections — nearly $336 million of it spent against Democrats and $269 million against Republicans.