By Michelle Conlin and Grant Smith
NEW YORK (Reuters) - The first report of Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush’s Super PAC, made public Friday, reveals for the first time, election lawyers say, just how much the group, Right to Rise, functioned as a kind of shadow campaign for Bush.
The group shelled out $5.4 million from January through June for all the workaday line items, from travel to catering to political consulting, that have traditionally been paid for by candidates' campaign committees.
The Super PAC's filing also reveals the gilded roster of Bush's top donors, a formidable collection of some of the world's most powerful and influential billionaires and GOP grandees, such as Coral Gables resident and private equity king Miguel Fernandez, who, with $3 million, was Bush's top donor.
San Franciscans William Oberndorf and Helen Schwab each gave about $1.5 million and 20 other people gave at least $1 million apiece.
With its $103 million haul, the Super PAC has smashed the fundraising totals of every other candidate, making Bush the clear leader in the money race, though not the polls, for the November 2016 election.
All Super PAC filings are due at the Federal Election Commission by midnight Friday (0400 GMT Saturday), but Bush's Super PAC was the first, and so far only one, to file.
The dramatic shift in spending patterns, campaign finance lawyers say, is the starkest sign yet of a new order in money in politics, one no longer dominated by small-dollar bundlers beholden to federal campaign finance regulations but rather by a new, anything-goes era featuring largely unregulated Super PACs and the billionaires, looking to influence U.S. policy, who fund them. It is indicative of a new playbook for how parties nominate, and pay for, their candidates.
"These new numbers show how Jeb Bush has outsourced his campaign to a Super PAC raising potentially corrupting and unlimited sums of money from special interests and wealthy donors," said Paul S. Ryan, senior counsel with the Campaign Legal Center, which has filed complaints with both the Federal Election Commission and the Department of Justice.
As Reuters has written, the FEC, by the admission of its own Democratic commissioners, has been rendered ineffectual by partisan gridlock. And the DOJ is unlikely to take up the issue during a campaign season, department sources have said.
Right to Rise, in a statement, said it "takes a conservative approach to FEC rules and we are in full compliance with all applicable laws and regulations. Our expenditures for six months of ... fundraising costs and fundraising events are minimal given the scale of our support from donors who have been drawn to Governor Bush's conservative record of reform."
The Bush campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment but has said it observed all campaign finance regulations.
THE "NON" CANDIDATE CANDIDATE
Starting in January, and right up until he announced his official candidacy June 15, Bush crisscrossed the country at a frenetic pace in what aides described as a "shock-and-awe" fundraising push to raise a record war chest from lobbyists, billionaires and old Bush family friends.
But all the while, Bush insisted he wasn't a candidate, a distinction that enabled him to operate outside the fray of federal campaign finance regulations, which limit individual campaign donations to $2,700.
Super PACs, by contrast, can accept any amount from anyone and are widely criticized by campaign finance reform advocates as tilting American democracy in favor of plutocrats with the biggest checks.
"There are now literally 100 people financing the bulk of our presidential elections," said Craig Holman, a government affairs lobbyist with Public Citizen, which advocates for consumers before Congress, the executive branch and the courts.
The report also shows the Bush camp's taste for the luxe and exclusive, with payments to the likes of the Four Seasons Palo Alto, the St. Regis in Atlanta and Houston, the Hotel Bel Air in Los Angeles, the Mandarin Oriental in San Francisco and the Union League of Philadelphia.
The Super PAC, now that Bush is an official candidate, is barred from coordinating with the campaign, but Bush’s favorite longtime strategist and top political adviser, Mike Murphy, is working for the Super PAC, not the campaign.
(Reporting by Michelle Conlin; Editing by James Dalgleish)