Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, Rick Santorum, and Martin O’Malley Are All Getting Sued Over the Same Campaign-Finance Law

A watchdog group says the bipartisan group is skirting campaign limits by denying they are exploring a 2016 campaign.

National Journal
March 31, 2015, 12:27 p.m.

They’ve staffed up in Iowa and New Hampshire. They’ve lined up political and communications operatives. They’ve traveled the country. They’ve been raising money.

Now, a campaign watchdog group says, they’ve violated the law.

The Campaign Legal Center filed a formal complaint Tuesday accusing four potential presidential candidates—Republicans Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, and Rick Santorum, as well as Democrat Martin O’Malley—of violating federal election law by raising money above the legal limits for candidates and those “testing the waters” of a candidacy.

(RELATED: 2016 Presidential Candidate Travel Tracker

“These 2016 presidential contenders must take the American people for fools—flying repeatedly to Iowa and New Hampshire to meet with party leaders and voters, hiring campaign staff, and raising millions of dollars from deep-pocketed mega-donors, all the while denying that they are even ‘testing the waters’ of a presidential campaign,” Paul S. Ryan, senior counsel for the Campaign Legal Center, which filed the complaint with the Federal Election Commission, said in a statement.

The refusal to acknowledge a run is more than a technicality. Because none of the four have admitted to “testing the waters” for a presidential run (a legal precursor to running, according to the FEC rules), they are unencumbered by the federal limits of $2,700 for candidates. That has left them free to solicit outsized campaign contributions. Jeb Bush, for instance, has attended some events for a supportive super PAC with an entry free as high as $100,000.

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The new complaint highlights the fact that many politicians are finding advantages this cycle in playing coy about their presidential aspirations, even joking on the trail about not triggering filing requirements. “The FEC has ears everywhere,” Santorum said on a recent Iowa trip.

A Santorum spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the complaint.

Bush spokeswoman Allie Brandenburger said: “We are fully complying with the law in all activities Governor Bush is engaging in on the political front. If Governor Bush engages in any ‘testing the waters’ activities, they will be paid for appropriately under the law and reported at the required time.”

“Our PAC has been fully compliant with the law,” said Lis Smith, a spokeswoman for O’Malley PAC. “This complaint has no merit and we are confident that—whatever the case may be with the other potential candidates—that is what the FEC will find.”

A spokeswoman for Walker also defended his activity. “Governor Walker has been talking to Americans about his reform-minded principles in Wisconsin through the issues based organization Our American Revival,” said Kirsten Kukowski, a spokeswoman for Walker’s political group. “If there are any announcements about his future he will do it in accordance with the law.”

So far, Ted Cruz is the only major announced presidential candidate. Others, including Hillary Clinton, Ben Carson, Lindsey Graham, and Jim Webb have acknowledged “testing the waters” but not launched formal campaigns.

The Campaign Legal Center said the four complaints filed on Tuesday are just the beginning and “more complaints will be forthcoming,” though Ryan isn’t sanguine about the prospect of the FEC cracking down on anyone.

Divided equally with three Democratic-aligned commissioners and three Republican-aligned commissioners, the FEC, Ryan said, is “broken and unlikely to do anything.”

“I don’t place much hope in the FEC,” Ryan added, “but that doesn’t mean we should not hold these candidates or potential candidates accountable.”

Correction: This piece was updated to clarify the nature of the Campaign Legal Center’s complaint.

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