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Will Hillary Clinton Use Super PACs to Attack Bernie Sanders?

The plan was for Clinton to use Super PACs to attack Republicans. With the rise of Bernie Sanders, that may have changed.

October 9, 2015

“Hillary is calling for aggressive campaign reform to end the stranglehold that wealthy interests have over our political system.”

—Hillary Clinton’s campaign website.

Campaigning in Iowa on Wednesday, Clinton was asked to reconcile her fervent opposition to Citizens United with her encouragement of two Super PACs that have already raised more than $20 million on her behalf. Hillary provided the textbook Democratic response: "I and others have said we’re not going to unilaterally disarm while the Republicans and the Koch brothers are out there raising money that they don’t even tell you where it came from.”

When it comes to Super PACs, Democrats talk about “unilateral disarmament” as often as Republicans warn of “another Munich” in foreign policy. Jim Messina, Barack Obama’s campaign manager, established the template in early 2012 when he tried to justify the president’s belated embrace of the same Super PACs that he once denounced. “We’re not going to fight this fight with one hand tied behind our back,” Messina said. “With so much at stake…Democrats can’t be unilaterally disarmed.”

There is more than a dollop of hypocrisy to the Democrats’ hatred of Super PACs run by the Koch Brothers and their gleeful acceptance of Super PAC spending by liberals like Tom Steyer. But it is equally true that the Democrats have only resorted to Super PACs in fall campaigns against Republicans. So far, the Democrats have adhered to their own version of the Eleventh Commandment: Thou shalt not use Super PACs to attack a fellow Democrat.

This was undoubtedly Clinton’s intention when she launched her campaign in tandem with two Super PACs—Priorities USA Action (Obama’s original 2012 vehicle) and Correct the Record (run by former conservative hit man turned Clinton loyalist David Brock). Since it seemed inconceivable that Hillary would face a well-funded Democrat in the 2016 primaries, these Super PACs were designed to fend off the inevitable Republican attacks.

All these neat calculations were upended when Bernie Sanders (a socialist from Vermont without a single endorsement from a fellow senator) demonstrated the power of small-donor fund-raising for a compelling presidential candidate operating outside the political mainstream. During the third quarter of 2015, Sanders raised a stunning $26 million, just $2 million less than Clinton.

While Hillary is not “broke” as she claimed she and her husband were when they left the White House, there is suddenly a real possibility that she will be outspent in the Democratic primaries. With her much larger campaign infrastructure (suitable for a de facto nominee) and the spending needed to support it, Clinton is depleting her campaign treasury at a much more rapid rate than Sanders. Hillary may also find herself in an unexpected and expensive two-front war if Joe Biden enters the race.

A beleaguered Republican former front-runner (think Jeb Bush) would know exactly what to do: In emergency, break glass and unleash your Super PAC.

Using Super PACs to attack your rivals (and violating Ronald Reagan’s Eleventh Commandment about never speaking ill of a fellow Republican) has been part of the GOP playbook since the 2012 presidential primaries. Every 2016 GOP presidential contender has planned from the outset to depend on a mixture of traditional fund-raising (maximum individual gift for the primaries: $2,700) and Super PACs. Since free-market Republicans harbor few, if any, theoretical objections to being bankrolled by billionaires, Super PACs are regarded as just another political weapon rather than a potential source of campaign hypocrisy.

But Democrats are different—or so they tell us. Clinton, who supports a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United, repeated in Iowa her anti-Super PAC mantra, “I would hope that we would get to a point where those would no longer be operating.”

These are fine sentiments, but for the first time in Democratic Party primaries, they are about to be tested. If Bernie Sanders ends up dominating the airwaves in the run-up to the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, it is a safe bet that Clinton campaign will have extensive private discussions about whether they want to signal to their Super PACs that immediate help is needed. There are almost certain to be cynics within the Hillary campaign who will argue that flip-flopping on Super PACs is a less risky strategy than being outspent on television.

Hillary might be tempted to try the old dodge of claiming that Super PACs are independent and that she has no control over them. Judy Woodruff asked Clinton in a Wednesday interview for PBS NewsHour about email attacks on Bernie Sanders by Correct the Record and reports that the David Brock Super PAC was also conducting opposition research on Joe Biden. Clinton expressed plausible ignorance about the activities of the Super PAC (“I don’t know anything about what you’re saying”) and added, “I want people who support me to go after Republicans.”

But if the Super PAC attacks on Sanders and potentially Biden become more overt, Hillary will not be able to resort to an ignorance-is-bliss stance. She has every right to loudly demand every single day that TV spots attacking her Democratic rivals be taken off the air. And, if she is truly serious, she could borrow a gambit from the Elizabeth Warren versus Scott Brown 2012 Senate race. Warren and Brown kept Super PACs out of Massachusetts by pledging to donate to charity campaign funds equal to half the value of all outside ads run on their behalf.

Presidential campaigns can become character tests in the most surprising ways. Hillary Clinton never imagined that Bernie Sanders’ candidacy would force her to test her resolve about only using Super PACs against Republicans. But the case for Hillary Clinton the Campaign Reformer will be infinitely more persuasive if she chooses to practice unilateral disarmament in the Democratic primaries. 

(Photo: Thinkstock)

The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.

Walter Shapiro is an award-winning political columnist who has covered the last nine presidential campaigns. Along the way, he has worked for The Washington Post, Newsweek, Time, Esquire, USA Today and, most recently, Yahoo News. He is also a lecturer in political science at Yale UniversityHe can be reached by email at and followed on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.