DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — A watchdog group is accusing four potential 2016 presidential candidates of skirting federal campaign finance rules while traveling and raising money as if they were off and running.
In complaints filed with the Federal Election Commission on Tuesday, the Campaign Legal Center says Florida Republican Jeb Bush, Maryland Democrat Martin O'Malley, Pennsylvania Republican Rick Santorum and Wisconsin Republican Scott Walker are raising money and campaigning for the presidency without incorporating presidential campaigns. Once such incorporated organizations exist, would-be candidates must comply with fundraising limits and disclosure rules.
Given the political structure of the FEC, it is unlikely any of the political figures would face penalties over the complaints.
Of the roughly 20 Democrats and Republicans weighing campaigns, only Republican Texas Sen. Ted Cruz has announced his candidacy. Cruz declared his candidacy last week, after traveling to early voting states for more than a year. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., has formed a political committee that would have to disclose his finances should he decide to become a candidate.
Bush and O'Malley aides said they were complying with the rules. Santorum and Walker aides did not reply immediately to requests for comment.
Paul S. Ryan, senior counsel for the legal center, said public denials by politicians that they are actual candidates "does not exempt these presidential hopefuls from federal election laws passed by Congress to keep the White House off the auction block."
Michael Malbin of the Campaign Finance Institute said, in his view, the complaints are unlikely to win the backing from four of the six FEC commissions who are needed to take action. The commission is divided, with three Democrats and three Republicans. "I think the merits of the complaint warrant a serious review but it is unlikely that four members of this FEC will agree," Malbin said.
Each potential candidate is raising money for his own political action committee or political not-for-profit group and has traveled to early nominating states such as Iowa and New Hampshire to meet with influential party leaders.
The law allows non-candidates to conduct political activity without the stricter requirements they face once they declare their bids. That may encourage such hopefuls to couch their ambitions in careful words, lest they are seen crossing the line into a candidacy before they are ready. Bush, for example, regularly offers the caveat: "If I go beyond the consideration of the possibility of running," as he did at the Conservative Political Action Conference near Washington last month.
Bush's advisers say such caution allows him to travel the country and headline fundraisers for the PAC he leads, called Right to Rise.
"We are fully complying with the law in all activities Governor Bush is engaging in on the political front," Bush spokeswoman Allie Brandenburger said.
The Campaign Legal Center said complaints are likely to be filed against more than the four. But officials added that Democrats Hillary Rodham Clinton and Jim Webb, as well as Republicans Ben Carson and Graham, appear to be complying with the rules.
Associated Press writer Philip Elliott in Washington contributed to this report.